How many medical cannabis patients will there be?  

How many medical cannabis patients will there be?  This question has been asked since the dawn of the Illinois program.  In fact, all medical cannabis programs around the country have played the numbers expectations game.  As with any high-profile program, one strategy is to set expectations that you can meet and hopefully exceed.  This can mean the difference between a headline of “Wave of patients exceed state’s expectations,” versus “Desperation as state fails to explain lagging patient enrollments.”

Every new medical cannabis program is framed by discussions of patient participation numbers.  Colorado had over 110,000 at its peak before recreational cannabis was introduced (roughly 2% of its population), while New York’s kickoff was abysmal at 71 patients (out of nearly 20 million residents).

Bob photo - press interviews

I was asked for my projections the very first time I was interviewed about cannabis, and it has been raised regularly ever since.  In that first interview I guessed that there would be “tens of thousands of patients over time.”

“State officials expect a flood of applications, perhaps “tens of thousands of patients over time,” Morgan said. The state’s medical marijuana program website has received more than 12,000 unique visitors and more than 2,000 people have signed up for email notifications about the program.”

It was my first of many future interviews with the Associated Press in my role as coordinator for the medical cannabis program.  I vividly remember the interview because I was quite nervous, and because it took place over a weekend while I happened to be on vacation in Utah, attending the Sundance Film Festival for the first time.

The interview started well, with anticipated questions and corresponding straightforward answers.  I was walking down Main Street in Park City, the home base of activity for the Festival, and it was fairly chilly outside.  Holding my cell phone with gloves on, I was feeling good about the interview until it happened.

I turned to see three adult men walking down the street in their underwear…and nothing else.  It was at this exact time that the AP reported asked me how many patients I expected for the 4-year pilot program.  I was frozen both literally and figuratively.  I asked the reporter to repeat the question to buy myself some time to get a grip.  I blurted out – “thousands of patients in the first year, and hopefully tens of thousands of patients over time.”

And there it was.

The projection stuck as a basis for many future press stories, and what many applicants used on their financial estimates when applying for state licenses later that year.

The numbers game played out in other instances too.  There was the time Illinois sought a contract to print I.D. for patients.  In the procurement documents we needed to indicate the maximum number of patients that we expected in the next few years – and we projected up to 100,000.  This, too, became a headline and added to the folklore of the pilot program.

As of this blog there are about 4,000 people registered with the Illinois medical cannabis program.  There are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands that are eligible with conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis, and severe fibromyalgia (there is no exact count of eligible patients since there is no accurate statewide tracking of all relevant medical conditions).  So my answer several years ago is still my answer today – I expect tens of thousands of participants in the medical cannabis program over time.  There are variables that will impact the numbers – whether the Illinois Department of Public Health adds new medical conditions, whether physicians become more comfortable with the program and start recommending participation in greater numbers, etc.

But I believe the best answer to the numbers game would be – total numbers don’t matter if even one person is denied access who would benefit from medical cannabis.  If even one person is denied, then our job isn’t done.  The Pilot Program will only be a legitimate success when we are no longer arbitrarily blocking Illinois residents from relief.