A New IL Med Cann Coordinator: What Does It Mean?

For starters, the Illinois Medical Cannabis Pilot Program (MCPP) is going to be just fine.  For those that missed it, yesterday we learned that coordinator Joe Wright had resigned from his position:

Wright, who resigned Friday, was paid $53,770 last year, according to a public database of state employee salaries. He will be replaced by Jack Campbell, the program’s bureau chief in the Department of Agriculture, Kelly said.

The change in leaders comes as Rauner considers signing a bill to extend the pilot program by 2½ years and adding post-traumatic stress disorder and terminal illness to the list of qualifying conditions. Democratic state Rep. Lou Lang announced last month that he, the Republican governor and the GOP’s House leader agreed to extend Illinois’ four-year pilot program until July 2020.

A transition in leadership of MCPP does not jeopardize patient access to medical cannabis, nor does it suggest any policy changes from the Rauner administration.

We don’t know why Wright resigned, but what matters is that Jack Campbell will do well in the role (presumably pulling double-duty in his prior role at Ag).

Campbell joined the Department of Ag after a 20 year career in law enforcement.

Some might have a gut-reaction against someone who spent much of his career enforcing drug laws, but he has spent the last year learning about MCPP and his recent actions should comfort those enrolled in the program.

At key junctures Campbell has been deliberate, transparent, and fair with the state’s cultivation centers.  In my humble opinion, Campbell will seamlessly maintain the program’s status quo, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the program’s persistent issues (delays in new rule making, responsiveness) improve over time.

You may be unaware of exactly what the MCPP coordinator does.  The coordinator’s role varies depending on the status of the program.  During my tenure I focused on rule-making, patient registrations, competitive license processes for dispensaries and cultivation centers, and outreach to educate the public about the program.  Wright oversaw physical site inspections, the first cannabis cultivation, and initial cannabis sales to patients.  Campbell’s new role will be to fine-tune aspects of the program that have proven to impede patient access or unnecessarily penalize the businesses, pushing through new administrative rules, managing the selection process for unclaimed dispensary licenses, and hopefully steering MCPP through the next stage of patient growth with the addition of PTSD and terminal illnesses, and extension of MCPP through 2020.

I liken the coordinator role to being the quarterback for the MCPP teams at Ag, IDFPR, IDPH, and ISP.  The coordinator does not conduct every inspection of a cultivation center, nor does he/she respond to every patient inquiry, but instead ensures broader goals and timelines are met, and is the final say on complex, unanticipated questions.  Illinois is one of the few states that brings together several state agencies to tackle the cannabis program, and it is important for all agencies to follow the same script and work together towards common goals.  The coordinator helps counterbalance the tendency of state agencies to work in silos; without a guiding presence agencies do not always play well together in the sandbox.  Campbell’s track record gives me confidence that he’ll achieve these tasks as the new coordinator.

My advice to the state’s medical cannabis patient and business community would be to focus on encouraging Governor Rauner to sign SB10.  The state’s new Pot Czar is going to be just fine.

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.

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name?  Hello, world.  I spent a fair amount of time thinking about creating this blog.  What will the focus be?  Who’s the audience?  How formal do I need or want to be?  The name was an easy decision – welcome to the Pot Czar Blog.

 

When I ran the Illinois Medical Cannabis program, not a day went by without hearing a pot joke.  Indeed, many in the Governor’s Office only referred to me as the “pot czar.”  I successfully kept this moniker out of the press until the end of my tenure, but I privately enjoyed the name as a badge of honor (despite my pleas, my wife would not join the chorus).  In hindsight, I am very proud to have been a part of getting medicine to patients suffering from a range of ailments – even if that comes with a tongue-in-cheek title I will someday have to explain to my son (“Dad, why does everyone ask me if you can get them a pot brownie?”).

 

With the blog name settled, I reflected on the importance of a name in this industry.  Cannabis or marijuana?  Resin or Shatter?  Patient or criminal?  The distinctions obviously matter and have driven this spectacular shift in society’s capacity to rethink the benefits and relative risks of this medicinal plant.

 

I was first approached in the Fall of 2012 about medical cannabis in Illinois.  I was working in the Office of the Illinois Governor as an attorney focused on healthcare and environmental issues.  At that time it was increasingly likely that a medical cannabis law could be passed in the Spring 2013 Illinois General Assembly.  A few of us were tasked with negotiating the final bill with legislative sponsors and others.  It is safe to say that I had no idea at the time how the cannabis industry was going to take over my career.

 

The world has changed a great deal in the last 4 years with regards to cannabis.  Here in Illinois, medical cannabis is available to a small percentage of the population – the law and rules keep many from participating.  There are a number of barriers that should be removed for patients – and I will continue advocating to tear down those walls.  Dozens of dispensaries and cultivation centers are operational here, and several entrepreneurial cannabis-related startups and investors are sprouting in Chicago.  There are advocacy organizations, regular media stories, dedicated Facebook pages, and ongoing political discourse about the industry.  We are even on the verge of significant criminal justice reform.

 

I will keep this blog focused on the cannabis industry, warts and all.  There are many things to discuss – patient access, business innovations, legal implications, criminal justice issues and more – and I look forward to hearing your feedback.  Who knows what will happen next in the world of cannabis, but the Pot Czar Blog will chronicle it all.