RIVER NORTH — Business owners and entrepreneurs eager to get rolling on the state's new medical-marijuana law will meet Saturday for a daylong discussion on how to take the nascent industry higher.
The Midwest CannaBusiness Symposium is sold out, with 150 attendees set for the Embassy Suites Chicago, 600 N. State St. Yet most will be looking for the answer to a very simple question, in the words of Chris Bochenski, vice president of Quantum 9, a Chicago-based medical-marijuana consulting and technology company: "What can people do now while the regulations are still being written?"
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the medical-marijuana bill into law earlier this month. Yet the actual logistics of putting the law into effect Jan. 1 remain in flux.
"There are responsibilities that have been delegated, but the actual framework, the processes they're going to implement, that's what's in the works," Bochenski said.
For instance, the Department of Agriculture will oversee the 22 cultivation centers — one in each Illinois State Police district. The Department of Health will monitor those allowed to buy medical marijuana. The Department of Financial and Professional Regulations will license the 60 allotted dispensaries.
Financial and Professional Regulations spokeswoman Susan Hofer said this week her agency was still working out the licensing process, as are the other departments.
Thus the symposium, sponsored by the National Cannabis Industry Association, which will bring in experts in the field from across the nation to discuss business plans and the actual workings of medical marijuana.
It's all intended to guarantee "safe access to quality medicine for severely ill patients," Bochenski said. The Illinois law was written to be much more restrictive than other, more liberal laws previously passed in Colorado, California and Washington.
"It's more focused on where mistakes have been made in other states and trying to address those," he added. Indeed, supporters pushed hard for the more restrictive measures before passage in the General Assembly.
But how to actually get involved is the key, Bochenski added, because there's gold in that there Acapulco Gold.
"If you look at the state of the economy, there are few other segments of the economy that are expanding as rapidly as this," Bochenski said, citing figures that showed Colorado dealt out $186 million in medical marijuana last year.
"Illinois joins 15 other states in not only allowing the choice of medical cannabis for those patients who need it, but also ensuring it is provided in the safest, most accountable manner possible — from licensed, taxed and regulated businesses," said Aaron Smith, executive director of the Cannabis Industry Association.
"This program will allow patients to benefit from medical cannabis while also allowing every Illinoisan to benefit from the creation of perhaps thousands of living-wage jobs, significant tax revenues and the economic stimulus that comes along with a regulated medical-marijuana market."
Bochenski pointed out that the medical-marijuana industry isn't about getting high. In fact, it deals in research that in some cases actually weeds out the intoxicating chemicals in marijuana and instead delivers the most potent qualities to address a given ailment, whether that be pain relief for multiple-sclerosis sufferers or hunger inducement for cancer patients on chemotherapy.
Yet, while bill supporters argued that it did not put the state on the slippery slope to full legalization, as critics insisted, Bochenski didn't shy from that possibility as a natural consequence down the road.
"A year from now, when people see their friends and relatives whose quality of life is improved, it's gonna change the discussion," Bochenski said. "They're gonna see the tax revenue in states like Colorado and Washington."
Both those states, he said, are now moving to legalize recreational use of marijuana, with Colorado projecting $920 million in sales next year, taxed at 30 percent.
"That's $300 million coupled with savings in the court system and law enforcement," Bochenski said. "So that's a very real number." He said it would be even more enticing in a state with the budget problems Illinois has.
Bochenski said that gives businesses all the more incentive to get in on the ground floor in Illinois, which is what Saturday's symposium is ultimately about.