Will there be enough legal marijuana after Jan. 1? Some patients fear shortage.

Walking into a store, browsing the selection and making a purchase of cannabis, legally, is a memory a lot of people Kelvin McCabe knows are looking forward to making.

McCabe is a board member of Illinois NORML, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. As an Illinois law that allows cannabis possession, use and sales will take effect Jan. 1, McCabe said he and other legalization supporters are feeling “an overwhelming sense of relief.”

“We have been arguing that this plant should have never been illegal in the first place and that criminal enforcement, particularly of possession offenses and people growing for their own use/needs, was a ridiculously harsh overreaction,” said McCabe, also an assistant public defender in Rock Island County.

“Cannabis was the most widely used 'illegal' substance, and there is no segment of the population that doesn't have its share of enthusiasts. Many of us have been waiting our entire lives for Illinois to take this sensible step.

“Walking into a store and legally 'shopping' for cannabis is going to be a highlight,” McCabe added. “Doesn't matter the age of the person, most will remember their first legal purchase for a very long time.”

But some supporters are tempering their excitement with reservations about things that could go wrong, such as issues with supply and medical program participation.

Advocates fear supply might have trouble keeping pace with demand, especially as excited recreational users rush to buy their first legal stash.

Medical patients might continue to experience shortages of product, as some users have been reporting for more than a month, said Kalee Hooghkirk, a board member of Illinois Women in Cannabis.

“It's hard to be excited, almost,” she said.

Hooghkirk, of Carpentersville, is herself a medical marijuana patient and runs Full Spektrum Services in West Dundee, where she sells hemp-based products and helps patients apply for the medical cannabis program.

She had hoped to expand her product lines by selling cannabis-based items, but the financial requirements of getting a license to conduct such sales “are prohibitive” for small-business owners like her, she said.

Still, marijuana legalization has brought opportunities - as a responsible vendor trainer she is teaching a course at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines that employees of cannabis dispensaries are required to take.

“Any time that we're increasing access and awareness and we're allowing more people to obtain a plant that is extremely beneficial,” she said, “I think that it's a good thing.”

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Democrat from Chicago and a lead sponsor of marijuana legalization, with Cook County State's Attorney Kimberly Foxx, center, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks Dec. 11 about court filings to vacate low-level marijuana convictions. PHOTO COURTESY OF @GovPritzker ON TWITTER

Jan. 1 is only the starting point, said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Democrat from Chicago who was a main sponsor of the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act.

Cassidy said she's aware of recent reports of marijuana shortages and understands the concerns of medical patients. The law requires medical marijuana dispensaries that get “early approval” licensees to sell recreational marijuana - 37 to date throughout the state - to keep a month's worth of supply for medical patients.

Every state that has legalized recreational marijuana had shortages at the beginning, Cassidy warned.

“Whether they took three months, six months, 12 months or 18 months to prepare, on day one, you have a shortage,” Cassidy said. “We are the only state that has ever put any protection in place to assure medical patients they will be first in line.”

State officials also plan to keep an eye on any “shenanigans” by the marijuana industry, such as intentional production shortages to drive up prices, Cassidy said.

Members of an “Opt In” group that is supporting recreational cannabis sales in Naperville, along with members of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine and the Chicago and Illinois chapters of NORML, say it's past time to allow, oversee and tax widespread sales of marijuana to people 21 and older.

“Regulating it is a much more productive way to go,” said Jim Haselhorst of the Opt In Naperville group. “There's nothing wrong with taxing it and getting some kind of social benefit out of something people want to do anyway.”

Haselhorst isn't a user, but he's working to encourage Naperville voters to support recreational sales on the March 17 primary ballot, which is expected to have an advisory referendum asking if the city should allow recreational sales.

Recreational marijuana will allow people to self-medicate for conditions such as pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia and low appetite, said Dr. David Ostrow, vice president for member services of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine.

Besides being first in line, registered medical marijuana users have other special perks - they will continue to buy pot at a lower tax rate than recreational users and are allowed to grow up to five cannabis plants at home.

Ostrow hopes these perks will convince medical users to continue with the medical cannabis program, so researchers can keep track of their use.

“That's an important source of information about what people think cannabis is working for, so science can then look into that,” he said.

Overall, Ostrow said, provisions in the law allowing adult use “feature a lot of things that I want to see. Anything that ends prohibition and all of its harms is good,” he said.

For Cassidy, that started recently, when Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx formally started court proceedings to expunge more than 1,000 low-level, nonviolent convictions for possession of marijuana. An estimated 770,000 people with marijuana-related criminal records will be eligible for expungement in Illinois.

“That was my reason for getting into this six years ago ... to address all the collateral consequences, to address the criminalization of communities,” Cassidy said. “To see the process begin in such a powerful way, that was the big one for me.”

Daily Herald staff writer Elena Ferrarin contributed to this report.

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