Worth the wait? Medical marijuana in MO and IL

(Source: KFVS)
(Source: KFVS)
Updated: Feb. 26, 2019 at 9:29 PM CST
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CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - By the end of 2019 you may be able to get medical marijuana in the state of Missouri if you are certified by a doctor.

Seems simple enough, but looks can be deceiving. Illinois has been in the medical marijuana business for five years and has much to teach its neighbor about the promise and the pitfalls of pot.

After high school, Jeff Ashworth learned the art of furniture repair. He was successful at his new career but these days he finds himself just vacuuming around furniture.

At age 48, Jeff is unemployed, on disability, and living with his parents in East Cape Girardeau. He knows he’ll be here for a while. More than 20 years of health problems including cancer, epilepsy and chronic pain left Jeff unable to work.

“At its worst, I was taking 30 pills a day. I was wasted,” Jeff recalled.

Broke and sick, Jeff returned home not only for support, but also for the promise of medical marijuana.

Swallowing more than 6,000 pills a year, many of them powerful opioids, Jeff knew he had to find another way. Medical marijuana was legalized in Illinois in 2014. Jeff was one of the first in southern Illinois to sign up for the program, receiving his medical marijuana license two months before he could buy the stuff.

“Two months after being on marijuana, I realized that I could get off all the opioids,” Jeff remembered.

Shortly after he wakes up, Jeff starts taking marijuana. He uses every couple of hours. The drug also helps him sleep at night and after battling throat cancer, marijuana gives Jeff the desire to eat again. Modern marijuana is a versatile medicine. Jeff can smoke it, vape it, even chew his way to relaxation and less pain.

Once a week Jeff drives the 20 miles to Anna and Thrive Dispensary.

Illinois is one of the most regulated states when it comes to medical marijuana. It controls the drug from seed to sale.

“Missouri is going to open it up. There are only 55 dispensaries in all of Illinois. Missouri will have lots of competition,” remarked Rosie Naumovski, owner of Thrive.

The state only awarded two medical marijuana licenses in southern Illinois. Rosie and her husband got two of them: the dispensary in Anna and one in Harrisburg.

Anna sees about 400 clients. The average age of their clients is 55 and older. The tight regulations have limited sales in Illinois as only Illinois residents enrolled in the medical marijuana program can legally buy marijuana in the state.

Missouri, a state that just approved medical marijuana three months ago, will allow residents from other states to buy there.

To qualify for medical marijuana, a doctor must certify that a person has one of the 41 qualifying conditions such as cancer, PTSD and rheumatoid arthritis. A patient takes that certification, along with other information, to a dispensary and applies for a license. It can take weeks to get one and they typically last for three years before they must be renewed. Patients are required to have an ongoing relationship with their doctor to stay in the program.

In Illinois, there’s been a resistance to certify among doctors and hospital groups.

Jeff Ashworth had no problem getting prescriptions for opioids, but finding a doctor to certify him for medical marijuana was tough.

“A lot of doctors could certify me but they either can’t, or they won’t," he said. "Maybe they’re worried about how it will look.”

Rosie Naumovski agreed. Doctors and hospitals in southern Illinois are hesitant to certify patients for medical marijuana. Liability, legality, and stigma are three reasons why.

Dr. Bert Fasnacht has been practicing medicine in southern Illinois for more than 30 years. He’s had patients ask about medical marijuana, but he’s never certified a patient to get it.

“There are so many other modalities that we can use that are highly effective," he said. "Marijuana isn’t FDA researched or approved. Why get involved? The liability is too great.”

In fact, Dr. Fasnacht said he couldn’t afford the malpractice insurance he’d have to carry if he certified patients.

Another sticking point is that although 33 states along with the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, the drug is still illegal on the federal level. Federal law says you can’t be in possession of drugs and own a firearm. This means if you want to be in the medical marijuana program, you’ll have to surrender any firearms you might have.

Dr. Fasnacht believes that it’s a matter of time before medical marijuana is no longer “medical,” and is just “marijuana.”

“I tell my patients to wait," he said. "In a couple of years I believe recreational marijuana will be legal. There will be no need for certification. That’ll take the doctor of it.”

Dr. Fasnacht, who ends a lot of his patient’s appointments admonishing them to “stop smoking,” is also opposed to the smoking component of medical marijuana. Finally, even in our “woke” state these days, marijuana still carries a stigma. A doctor doesn’t want to get a reputation as the “pot doctor.”

In East Cape Girardeau, Jeff knows that his furniture repair days are over. Still, he’s content. With medical marijuana he’s able to do things, like help around the house and mow the yard. When he was on opioids, all he wanted to do was sleep.

His family, once opposed to medical marijuana, now sees its benefits. Jeff does too, “It’s given me my life back. A life I had forgotten existed.”

Missouri dispensaries will be open for business by the year’s end or even early 2020. Getting doctors up to speed may be a slower process.

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