Metro-East News

Why have 15 Illinois pot dispensaries — including Sauget’s — still not opened?

The Green Solution medical cannabis dispensary in Sauget, which hopes to open around the end of July.
The Green Solution medical cannabis dispensary in Sauget, which hopes to open around the end of July.

Eighteen months have passed since Gov. Bruce Rauner issued licenses to 52 retail medical marijuana dispensaries across the state, including one for TGS Illinois, located in Sauget.

But so far, only 37 of those dispensaries have opened for business. The remaining 15, including The Green Solution facility in Sauget and another TGS dispensary in Normal, have not opened. This has raised concerns for Joseph Wright, the state’s medical cannabis director.

Wright, the state’s so-called cannabis czar, said the dispensaries that have not open have encountered legitimate reasons for delays, from zoning problems in their communities to technical glitches.

“We’ve had a lot of zoning issues, especially in Chicago,” Wright said. “Others just have their own issues related to establishing a business. Ultimately, what we’re looking for here is meaningful compliance, meaningful efforts to reach the finish line.”

We’ve had a lot of zoning issues, especially in Chicago. Others just have their own issues related to establishing a business. Ultimately, what we’re looking for here is meaningful compliance, meaningful efforts to reach the finish line.

Joseph Wright, head of Illinois’ medical marijuana program

The law that set up the state’s medical cannabis program does not explicitly state a timeframe by which licensed dispensaries must schedule a final state inspection and obtain registration — the final step before they can open for business.

But if it’s clear that dispensaries are not moving forward toward opening for business, then the state can act and claw back their licenses, according to Wright.

“I don’t know if that would necessarily mean there would be a transfer to somebody else,” Wright said. “More likely than not, that license would be withdrawn and re-evaulated at that time.”

After several delays, TGS will likely open for business in Sauget by the end of July, according to Tanya Griffin, who oversees TGS Illinois, which is owned by Colorado-based TGS.

Located just off Interstate 255 and next to the GCS Ballpark in Sauget, the metro-east’s second medical cannabis dispensary occupies the seemingly ideal location.

A final inspection of the site by the state of Illinois is is planned for the middle of next month, Griffin said.

“We just have to go through that process and then we’ll be open for business,” said Griffin, vice president of local expansion for Denver-based The Green Solution, one of that state’s largest distributors of legal cannabis.

TGS had originally been set to open Jan. 1. That got pushed back to May, and now the new target date for opening is around the end of July.

Griffin blamed the latest delays on technology issues, more specfically, “the back-end IT stuff,” Griffin said. “So it’s not really a problem. It just had to be done. We’re on schedule.”

TGS Illinois will be the second dispensary to open in the five-county region that comprises District 11. HCI Alternatives, in Collinsville, opened its doors to customers in late January.

Griffin, despite the frustration of the repeated delays, struck an upbeat tone.

“This was always going to be a crawl-walk-run process,” she said. “I think we’ve made huge progress.We’re going to now finally let patients have some access.”

This was always going to be a crawl-walk-run process. I think we’ve made huge progress.

Tanya Griffin of The Green Solution, which plans a Sauget dispensary

Late July is also when TGS Illinois plans to open a second dispensary at a former Curves gym in Normal. That facility is the only retail dispensary licensed for the state’s District 6 in the state’s central region.

Griffin noted Illinois legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 10, which is now awaiting the signature of Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The measure, which Rauner has promised to sign, extends the state’s medical cannabis pilot program by two and a half years to July 2020 and allows patients who suffer from two more medical conditions — post-traumatic stress disorder and terminal illness — to become eligible for state certification cards.

“It’s so monumental,” Griffin said. “It’s a good hurdle to get over, right?”

The inclusion of PTSD is a major achievement because an estimated 8 percent of adults suffer from the psychiatric disorder, which stems from experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events such as military combat, violent crime, sexual assault and earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

PTSD’s symptoms include insomnia, anxiety, feelings of isolation and intense nightmares and flashbacks. Because of PTSD’s addition to the already-recognized list of 39 qualifying medical conditions, potentially thousands of new patients in Illinois are eligible to place their names on the state medical cannabis registry.

That would be a much-needed boost to a fledgling industry troubled so far by disappointingly low patient numbers, a fact that has raised questions about its viability going forward. Fewer than 7,000 patient names are on the state registry list — or about 10 percent the number that cannabis entrepreneurs had hoped to see in Illinois by this point in the pilot program’s life.

Much of the research regarding the efficacy of medical marijuana to treat a range of medical conditions and illnesses is often sketchy and inconclusive.

But a series of major studies has shown that medical cannabis is an effective way to treat PTSD because of its efficacy in quelling anxiety and erasing the brain’s memory circuits. It is also a much safer alternative than highly addictive and deadly opiate-based painkillers, which kill thousands of Americans each year through accidental overdoses. In 2014 alone, more than 14,000 people in America died from overdoses involving prescription opiates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Illinois is one of the worst states for opiate deaths,” Griffin said. “So when we start taking people’s prescription drugs, their opiates, away, we need to give them a non-lethal alternative, especially for these poor (military) veterans.”

Caprice Sweatt, the founder and CEO of Medical Cannabis Outreach, of Canton, said the biggest impact of the 15 licensed dispensaries not opening yet is on the patients they are meant to serve.

“It would only be a problem for the patients in those communities,” Sweatt said.

Ultimately, the Illinois cannabis industry will endure and survive, she predicted.

“So we feel the industry feels like, ‘We’re going to be OK and make it and everything’s going to be fine.’ And what we’ll see is the dispensaries that can’t get open, maybe they’ll do deals with other dispensaries that are open and they’ll help them to get open. We support each other. I think eventually well see these other dispensaries open.”

So we feel the industry feels like, ‘We’re going to be OK and make it and everything’s going to be fine.

Caprice Sweatt, founder of Medical Cannabis Outreach

In May, the state’s dispensaries served about 5,100 patients, with sales pegged at $2.3 million statewide — their best month ever. Since early November, the state’s dispensaries have sold nearly $11 million in medical cannabis.

Griffin’s upbeat attitude also derives from what’s been happening in state legislatures nationwide. Right now 23 states and the District of Columbia have approved cannabis for medical use, while another four have legalized it for recreational use.

Voters in 12 more states could legalize cannabis in some form in November. And when that happens, some big changes could be in store, Griffin predicted.

“Watch what happens in November,” said Griffin, a graduate of Althoff Catholic High School, in Belleville. “It’s just going to be a landslide. November could be a big turning point for the country. Democrats and Republicans both favor these programs.”

Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533, @MikeFitz3000