Pending medical marijuana dispensary won't affect NU students

    You may not notice it as much as you’d notice construction on North Campus, or Buffalo Wild Wings closing or your crush in math class. Certainly, if you haven’t been following the status of drug laws on the state or federal level, you probably wouldn’t notice it at all.

    But come January, there may be a medical marijuana dispensary here in Evanston.

    Don’t get excited just yet, though.

    “We won't know whether Evanston will have a dispensary opening up until after January 1, 2015,” said Weinberg junior Scott Metzger, board member of Northwestern’s chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the reform of drug laws. Members of the Evanston City Council approved a lease plan for the space, located at 1800 Maple Ave., in August, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

    The dispensary will have to go through a complex committee and review process before being approved, of course, and prospective investors will have to submit a lengthy application. There are, however, already quite a few prospective applicants that “indicated that they were focusing on the city,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

    “As soon as one heard about it, many heard about it,” Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said. Now there are as many as 23 firms interested in opening a dispensary at the proposed location.

    Because of this, Bobkiewicz said, chances of approval are good.

    “The State of Illinois has issued aggregate numbers of the number of applications [for the dispensary location],” Bobkiewicz said. “Evanston and Niles Township have the second most in the state…We figure that the odds are pretty good.”

    So why might you not notice it? First of all, Illinois’ medical marijuana law is stricter than many others that have been passed around the country.

    Late last year, Illinois legalized the production, distribution, and consumption of marijuana strictly for medical use. The law, signed by Governor Pat Quinn in August of 2013, established a four-year pilot program (2014 to 2018) that allows “60 state-run dispensaries and 22 ‘cultivation centers’…where marijuana plants will be grown,” according to USA Today.

    The law allows use of marijuana to treat more than 30 ailments, ranging from lupus to spinal cord injuries. Doctors will be able to prescribe a maximum of 2.5 ounces of weed over 2 weeks, and the doctor and patient must have an “established and ongoing medical relationship,” according to USA Today. While it’s unclear what exactly that means, rest assured that you won’t be able to legally get half an ounce of bud for your leg cramp from Billy on the street corner.

    Other restrictions in the new law include required fingerprinting and background checks, as well as a ban on home-growing of marijuana.

    In addition, Northwestern itself has its own drug policy to avoid breaking federal laws like the Drug Free Workplace Act.

    “[Northwestern] prohibits the use of medical marijuana among its students,” Metzger said. “Students shouldn't expect much of a difference if and when a dispensary opens in Evanston.”

    You can read more about Northwestern’s drug policy here.

    The existence of the dispensary may not be important to you insofar as your daily routine won’t change, but the city and state’s move toward liberalized marijuana laws, even if just for medical use, are an important signal of a broader, nationwide trend.

    Illinois’ law follows the 2012 laws in Colorado and Washington that legalized marijuana for both medical and recreational use. Both Colorado and Washington approved legalization through ballot initiatives; voters in the midterm elections in those states were able to vote, referendum-style, to legalize marijuana or keep it illegal at the same time they voted for state officials.

    Across the country, other states have taken action on marijuana, though not to the same extent. States like Missouri and Ohio have removed most criminal penalties for possession, some states have legalized solely medical use, and still other states have both removed criminal penalties and legalized medical use.

    Public opinion across the country about marijuana has also undergone a dramatic shift in the last 20 years or so. In 1991, according to The New York Times, 78 percent of Americans thought marijuana should be illegal. In 2008, that number was 57 percent. And in 2013, for the first time ever, a majority of the public (52 percent) supported legalizing marijuana. Now, it’s 54 percent.

    In Illinois, according to a 2013 Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll, 40 percent of the population “strongly favored legal marijuana” and an additional “23 percent simply favored it."

    Given the changing tide of public opinion, it will be interesting to see if, and how, Northwestern’s medical marijuana policy will change in the coming years. Any changes will likely require federal action given the existence of the Drug Free Workplace Act, but federal action isn’t out of the question given the massive changes in public opinion in recent years.

    Illinois, of course, hasn’t entirely been absent from the conversation about legalization. Earlier this year, four Chicago-area state legislators held a press conference calling for full legalization of marijuana, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

    Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey compared the issue to Prohibition in the early 20th century, saying that the only difference between Prohibition and current marijuana laws was that “this country still hasn’t acknowledged that the War on Drugs is a failure," according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Other advocates of legalization in Illinois included state representatives Mike Zalewski, Kelly Cassidy and Christian Mitchell.

    Illinois, however, “is unlikely to be at the forefront of [recreational] legalization,” Metzger said, especially given how stringent its medical marijuana laws are. That won’t stop the conversation, though. Medical marijuana is a start, but Illinois can’t hope to remain absent from the rising tide against marijuana prohibition forever; the only question now is how and when our state will choose to join.


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