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Just as today marks the launch of medical marijuana in Iowa, it sets in motion a considerable expansion of medical marijuana in Illinois — with the approval of recreational pot hot on its heels.

Davenport has one of the five medical marijuana dispensaries in Iowa, which will get its products from one of two state-approved grow operations. The marijuana will contain a maximum of 3 percent THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive compound that produces pot's high. In marijuana-legal states like Colorado, THC levels average an estimated 15 percent.

Beginning Saturday, Iowans with the proper credentials can begin buying and using the pharmaceutical-grade drug.

While Iowa is new to medical marijuana, Illinois has several years of experience regulating it. But the epidemic-level abuse of narcotics — and the nearly 72,000 overdose deaths that resulted in the U.S. in 2016 — has placed pot in higher favor as a potential alternative. 

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner this summer signed legislation that will permit patients prescribed opioid drugs, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, to instead opt to try marijuana for pain management. Governor-elect B.J. Pritzker has vowed to take it further, planning to push for full-on legalization when he takes office in January.

Long-time House speaker Mike Madigan has said he'll support Pritzker's efforts, and the Democrat-controlled Statehouse picked up even more seats in the midterm elections, which could produce the votes needed for Illinois to become the second state in the Midwest to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Michigan voters gave their approval in the November election.

Regardless whether Illinois legalizes in 2019, the medical-marijuana expansion is likely to have a considerable impact, according to the only Quad-City company in the business of selling it.

Matt Stern of Nature's Treatment of Illinois, said he intends to break ground next month on an expansion of his Milan dispensary to accommodate what he predicts will be two-to-three times more customers taking advantage of the so-called opioid bill.

"We're getting plans drawn up to double in size," he said Thursday. "We expect twice, maybe three times the business."

Under the new provisions, doctors and patients have the option of choosing a pot prescription over a pain-pill prescription. Desperate for a way to slow the fatal addiction so many Americans have to narcotics, the new measure removes some of the state's access hurdles, such as fingerprinting and background checks.

"The doctor just gives a card that allows patients to try it for 90 days," Stern said. "Our motivation was never to get to recreational marijuana. We're more excited about the opioid thing than anything.

"Most of our customers come in because they couldn't function on the opioids. About 50 percent of them wanted a natural remedy.

"Their quality of life has improved. Tears don't lie."

While Stern said he's "neutral" on recreational marijuana, all-out legalization would be good for his business, too. It could be more profitable than the medicinal side. It is important to keep the two separate, he said, to spare medical marijuana users from the higher tax rates that typically accompany recreational pot.

But he wants to see marijuana decriminalized by the federal government, he said, because the drug has a long history of being misunderstood and misrepresented.

"The feds categorize marijuana as a Schedule I drug, so no testing on medical uses is allowed for it," he said. "Meth is also a Schedule I drug. Cocaine gets a lesser rating from the feds, a Schedule II.

"It's crazy. That really needs to be fixed. Now that (former U.S. Attorney General Jeff) Sessions is gone, maybe that will change. He was totally against it.

"We're seeing more and more in this country that medical marijuana has a positive impact on communities."

Recreational pot: Negotiations underway

State Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Andalusia, is one of two Republicans on the negotiating committee considering how Illinois might manage recreational marijuana.

As a Moline firefighter/EMT, Anderson said, the decision to expand medical marijuana was a no-brainer.

"I can't tell you how many overdose calls I've been on," he said. "It's horrible."

His support of full legalization is less certain for several reasons.

For starters, Illinois has passed big legislation in the past that could have been better managed. For instance, Illinois casinos are required to share far fewer gaming proceeds than Iowa casinos. For Anderson, the claims that were made about state lottery proceeds were sorely misrepresented.

"That was a classic bait and switch," he said of promises by the state legislature decades ago that lottery profits would go solely to schools.

State Rep. Mike Halpin, D-Rock Island, shares Anderson's concerns.

"I haven't committed to supporting it, but I'm generally committed to it," he said of a recreational pot bill. "The question is always: How do we divide the revenue? It's an opportunity we can't waste this time."

Details on revenue and regulation need to be addressed in great detail, Halpin said, before he would endorse the measure. And he hasn't always been open to even discussing it, he said, but a door-knocking campaign convinced him most of his constituents regard marijuana safer than alcohol and a financial opportunity for a cash-strapped state.

"I wasn't supportive of it in my first couple months in office," he said. "There's support throughout my district, though, I think."

Anderson isn't entirely convinced, either.

"I'm in favor of knowing what the final rules are," he said. "There are things that could pull me off of it."

Having spoken with law enforcement and lawmakers in the long-legal state of Colorado, Anderson said he has specific concerns about edibles — foods and candies that contain THC. The products often contain very high levels of THC, he said, and users frequently disregard dosage instructions. Edibles, he said, are better left on the medical side of marijuana.

Another concern is whether and to what extent Illinoisans should be permitted to grow their own pot plants. To make that work, he said, licenses and inspections would be required, or the state would lose tax revenue and oversight into quality control.

"I've never smoked marijuana in my life," Anderson said. "But I do know prohibition has not worked."

About the money

Left to Sen. Anderson, 100 percent of tax revenues from recreational marijuana would go toward Illinois' considerable backlog of bills.

Before the money can be earmarked, though, the legislature has to agree on a tax rate, among other things. And the taxes can't be so high that the state prices itself out of competition with the black market.

With the experience of nearly a dozen other states that have legalized pot for everyone, projected revenues are more reliable than they might otherwise be. Colorado has less than half the population of Illinois, and pot sales exceeded $1.5 billion in 2017.

The current estimate puts potential pot-tax revenue for the state at $300 million to $700 million annually. But Anderson warns that oversight costs could reach $200 million, leaving about a half billion in new revenue for a state with a $36 billion annual budget.

"It's ridiculous to suggest it fixes the budget," he said.

But it's still a lot of money, he said, and the accounting doesn't take into consideration the associated new jobs and possible law enforcement and incarceration savings. It's also potentially good for business.

"If the rec (recreational) is approved in the state, we're automatically approved for that license," Stern said of his Milan dispensary. "We'd have to have different buildings to keep the operations separate."

As a license holder, Stern said, the new legislation likely will allow him to operate in a second location. One possibility, he said, is Galesburg. If he's permitted to go outside the area, he would pick Chicago's south loop, he said.

"As far as the rec side, we're pushing back as hard as we can, because we've invested so much, and we want to keep the standards up," he said. "There is strict record-keeping, security, random quality inspections, product labeling and testing, and the state can watch our POS (point of sale) or anything else on cameras 24 hours a day.

"There's a lot involved, and you can't make a mistake. I'm pretty neutral on rec, but they have to make sure they have those quality-control standards."

State Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, said she supported the expansion of medical marijuana, saying medical decisions are best made by doctors, not the state. When asked about recreational marijuana, she said she will read whatever bill is proposed, but she has little faith in any new legislation.

She said she told Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, who earlier this year co-sponsored a bill to legalize recreational marijuana: "I would stress the truth when speaking with the media, because selling the idea to the public that it will save our budget woes is absurd."

In an email Thursday, McCombie wrote: "As far as recreational marijuana, I have stated several times that I do NOT support the bill that was pulled from the record, and I look forward to examining the new bill once it is filed. I do NOT believe there will ever be an agreement on revenue earmarks and/or enforcement decisions, however, I respect and appreciate Representative Cassidy listening and considering the opinions of state agencies, community organizations, law enforcement and state legislators.   

"The state of Illinois has better ways to generate growth!"

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