Illinois’ medical marijuana pilot program is finally off the ground, with 25 dispensaries now operating. Since the program's November debut, the state has recorded more than $1 million in sales. Some are worried, though, that the program could be in trouble before it’s had a chance to succeed due to low patient enrollment. Although there are over more than 4,000 patients registered, officials anticipated that there would be closer to 30,000 patients at this point in the implementation process.
To gain a better understanding of the inner workings of the state’s Medical Cannabis Pilot Program, Leafly had a chance to speak with a qualifying general practitioner registered to make medical marijuana recommendations, Dr. Rahul Khare of Innovative Express Care in Chicago.
Leafly: What have been some of biggest challenges you’ve faced in entering the medical marijuana sector?
Rahul Khare: Honestly, it’s that there are a lot of conditions in Illinois that are not considered qualifying. It’s been incredibly difficult to have so many patients coming to me asking for help, but who are unable to get a recommendation for medical marijuana based on their condition. It’s an unfortunate situation. Many patients come to me as a general practitioner, rather than their own [doctor], which is frustrating for me to see. Often, they have asked their own physician about medical marijuana. For whatever reason, their doctor does not feel comfortable certifying their patient. The patients often get frustrated, ask their family or friends, and somehow come to me to switch their primary care to someone who is open to [cannabis] as a medication.
Leafly: Have your peers been surprised to find out that you’re working with medical marijuana patients?
Khare: It does surprise some, but I’ve been more surprised by how supportive my peers have been. Many of my colleagues work for hospitals, which are considered federal institutions, and they can’t get certified. Many people that I didn’t think would be supportive – friends, family – so many have reached out to me and are grateful to have someone who can answer their questions. I was hesitant to make it known to everyone, but everyone is very excited.
Leafly: One of the more controversial issues in Illinois concerns the expansion of qualifying medical conditions. If you could personally expand the qualifying conditions for the program, which additions do you think patients would most benefit from?
Khare: I’ve thought about this a lot, actually. If I could expand the qualifying conditions, I would include:
- Dysthymic disorder – otherwise known as clinical depression
- Panic disorder – I would much rather see patients using cannabis to manage their symptoms than addictive drugs like Xanax or “benzos” [benzodiazepines]
- Intractable pain
- Neuropathy, particularly in diabetics, can cause a constant, stinging sensation
- Lyme disease – after the acute illness, patients experience chronic pain and aches, which has not been considered [as a qualifying condition]
These are the main conditions I would like to see included.
Leafly: What made you decide to start recommending medical marijuana to begin with?
Khare: I had many patients who came to me asking about medicinal marijuana. I’m an advocate of medical marijuana – I’ve been to California and Colorado and heard a lot of success stories. These patients [who asked about medical marijuana] are taking large amounts of narcotics and opiates. There are studies coming out that show a decrease in the use of narcotics with the legalization and use of medical marijuana.
Leafly: Are patients worried about signing up? What is the general attitude that you see?
Khare: There are two groups of patients that I generally see. There are patients who are fearful of medical marijuana, some who have teenage children and want to be discreet – those patients are very aware of the stigma attached. The second group is those who are aware that there is a huge, nationwide discrepancy between federal and state laws. This is the group that questions, “Will this be taken away from me?” They recognize that it’s a very gray area, because it is, technically, a federal offense, but in all practicality a patient is very safe with a medical marijuana certification.
Leafly: Do you think the Illinois Medical Cannabis Pilot Program will be extended beyond the 2017 deadline?
Khare: I believe so. The state of Illinois is in financial trouble and the amount of revenue they’re already seeing from the program is encouraging. There hasn’t been a lot of backlash from patients or opponents and this has already been done successfully in other states. The truth is that the dispensaries, the laboratories, the lobbyists, the physicians, they all want more people to have access and in that regard, the medical marijuana industry is much more aligned than the pharmaceutical industry. We are all in the same boat and there’s no conflict of interest. It’s interesting to see, right now, that all the people involved in the medical marijuana industry want the same thing: more patients signed up for medical marijuana. That will all change when there’s competition for patients, but for right now, they all want to help qualified patients to get certified for medical marijuana.