Credit: Clay Hickson

Andrea, a single mother of two diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia more than a decade ago, plans to sell her home in the Chicago suburbs and move to Michigan, where she can grow her own medical marijuana free from fear of any legal repercussions.

Andrea (who asked to be identified by only her first name) also suffers from depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, osteoarthritis, and alcoholism. She spent the decade following her leukemia diagnosis in 2004 on a slew of different pharmaceutical medications, including oral chemotherapy.

“I felt like shit for ten years,” the 49-year-old says. That is, until she began using cannabis to manage the side effects of the medication. About two years ago she switched over to a pot-only regimen. Since then, Andrea says, she’s “been able to establish remission without any medication in my system whatsoever.”

Andrea received a medical marijuana card from Illinois last fall, but says she doesn’t purchase medical marijuana from a dispensary—currently the only legal method of obtaining the drug—because it’s too expensive. She survives on a fixed income made up of disability and child-support payments.

“When you are a disabled patient you cannot afford cannabis, whether it’s on the black market or a dispensary,” she says. “You can’t afford anything, for that matter.” Growing the drug herself, Andrea says, is the cheapest way to get the cannabis she needs.

Andrea has a secret garden on her property where she grows her own marijuana. But as long as she lives in Illinois, she fears the potential consequences.

“I risk my children being taken away from me,” she says of her ten-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son. “That’s fucking scary. And it’s wrong.”

“I would give you very good odds we will never see a medical marijuana program in Illinois that allows patients or caregivers to grow their own medicine.”

—Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws­

Between 2009 and 2011, the Illinois legislature came the closest it ever has to passing a bill that would allow qualified patients to grow their own medical marijuana. The majority of the 23 states with some type of medical marijuana legislation on the books allow patients to grow their own, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a nonprofit group that opposes pot prohibition.

“However, no state has legislatively permitted this option since New Jersey eliminated this provision as a last-minute legislative compromise in 2009,” says the organization’s deputy director, Paul Armentano.

A bill that passed the Illinois senate in May 2009 included an amendment permitting patients to possess up to six plants, though no more than three mature, over the course of 60 days. But the bill failed to get approval in the house in January 2011.

Three years later, Illinois’s Medical Cannabis Pilot Program took effect. While the program allows approved patients to purchase medical marijuana at state-licensed dispensaries, it doesn’t grant them the right to grow their own pot.

“I would give you very good odds we will never see a medical marijuana program in Illinois that allows patients or caregivers to grow their own medicine—and that’s coming from somebody who has spent a lot of time working in the political trenches,” says Dan Linn, executive director of NORML’s Illinois chapter.

Linn worked with advocates and lawmakers for more than a decade to pass medical marijuana legislation in Illinois. The effort was “grassroots oriented” for the most part, he says, but after the bill passed the senate in 2009, Linn recalls, “a good amount of money” was poured into the effort by businesses looking to profit off legal weed—especially as cultivators.

“All of a sudden there were a bunch of paid lobbyists there with access to capital,” Linn says. The businesses invested in the effort didn’t adamantly oppose home cultivation, Linn explains, but they weren’t in favor of it either.

“The cultivators would tell you it’s extremely dangerous to allow patients or caregivers to grow their own, that there could be pesticides, harmful chemicals, mold, or bugs in plant material,” Linn explains.

Even some supporters express concerns about in-home weed cultivation. Joe Friedman, a pharmacist who owns and operates PDI Medical, a medical marijuana dispensary in Buffalo Grove, argues that patients growing their own pot severely limits their ability to know exactly what they’re inhaling or ingesting.

Illinois cultivators “are mandated by law to send batches of their product to the lab for analysis, and when the lab analysis comes back, we know exactly if it’s a sativa or an indica, and we know the percentages of the cannabis component in the product we get,” he explains.

But patients like Sara Hawkinson feel they’d know more about their weed if they grew it themselves. The 23-year-old uses cannabis to treat pain from scoliosis, and says she’s pleased with the product she receives from her dispensary in Peoria. But she wishes she had the option to grow her own, or procure pot from a more familiar source, so she could know exactly how the drug was cultivated.

“I don’t talk to these growers one-on-one,” she says, referring to the state’s licensed cultivators. “I can’t go in and see how it’s being made. I can look stuff up online, and whatever they tell me they tell me, but I don’t really know.”

In the negotiations that led to today’s pilot program, scrapping home cultivation was an easy compromise for lobbyists working on behalf of business interests, Linn says.

Still, law enforcement opposition proved to be the primary reason a home cultivation provision was dropped, according to Linn and others.

“They felt it was an uncontrolled situation for them and left open the possibility of abuse, and they weren’t going to be moved off of that position,” remembers state rep Lou Lang, a sponsor of the pilot program and a key player in the fight to legalize medicinal pot in Illinois.

Jim Gierach, a former Cook County assistant state’s attorney, remembers law enforcement agencies giving those working to pass a medical marijuana bill “a hard time.” Gierach serves as the executive board vice chairman of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an international nonprofit made up of former criminal justice officials who oppose the so-called war on drugs. Gierach was only indirectly involved in legislative negotiations, but considers Illinois’s pilot program to be “one of the strictest and tightest of any state.”

Gierach, who also advocates drug legalization, says “there’s absolutely no justification in preventing someone from growing their own [marijuana], particularly patients who need medicine because of some physical condition.”

The Illinois Sheriffs Association, one of the most vocal law enforcement organizations to oppose the medical pot movement, did not return multiple requests for comment.

The argument shouldn’t boil down to an either/or situation between home-grown pot and marijuana purchased at a dispensary, says NORML’s Armentano.

“An ideal situation allows for both,” he says. Many qualified patients are too sick or lack the green thumb required to grow pot, he says, and it’s important they have access to “safe, aboveground facilities that can provide this product for them.” On the other hand, he says, the law should allow patients the option to cultivate their own medication, especially because it’s not clear every dispensary will have the strain in stock that works best for their condition.

But home cultivation is somewhere closer to the bottom of Linn’s list of priorities. His top priority, he says, is making Illinois’s pilot program permanent. It’s set to expire at the end of 2017, and with a Republican governor in office—one who has vetoed bills to expand the program and decriminalize pot in general—the future of medical marijuana here remains uncertain.

Lang says it’s possible that medical marijuana patients in Illinois may one day be able to grow their own weed. But “it is a heavy lift,” the Skokie Democrat says. For the next piece of medical marijuana legislation to pass, he’ll need to get a veto-proof majority in the house and senate to approve it.

“It’s a balancing act for me, the patients, and the state government,” Lang explains. “I think I could make an argument that home cultivation is a good idea, but my goal is to keep the program alive, and I’ll do what I have to do during negotiations to make that happen.”

The political wrangling over the issue bears personal consequences for patients like Andrea. It’s particularly devastating, she argues, for the patients too poor to afford dispensary prices and unwilling to take the risks she has to obtain the drug. Patients growing their own marijuana or procuring it from a caregiver who has grown it on their behalf “would be a viable option for so many people,” she argues.

“We are not criminals—we’re cancer patients and patients trying to survive,” Andrea says. “And if any one of those people who make these decisions could walk around in my shoes even for a day, they’d get a good dose of what it would be like.” v