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CHICAGO (AP) — Advocates of Illinois' troubled medical marijuana experiment hope to reassure investors by pushing to have lawmakers extend it beyond 2017, when it expires, but the initiative faces an uncertain fate on Gov. Bruce Rauner's desk.
Entrepreneurs and backers say the success of the four-year program does not depend on an extension. But after a year of stumbles, lawsuits and delays, they believe it would send a signal that the program won't end before the state can work out the problems and do a proper evaluation.
The pilot project was approved two years ago. Because of the delays, businesses aren't yet selling the drug and aren't expected to begin sales until later this year.
"I don't know how you could make a thoughtful decision on the program without an extension," said Teddy Scott, CEO of PharmaCann, a suburban Chicago company that is building secure marijuana growing facilities in Hillcrest and Dwight. PharmaCann plans to open retail shops in Ottawa, North Aurora, Schaumburg and Evanston.
A bill has passed the Illinois House proposing to extend the program from its current deadline of Jan. 1, 2018, to four years from when the first retail shop opens its doors. The bill now awaits a vote in the Senate.
"If I'm an investor in one of these operations, I'm going to be a bit nervous," said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who sponsored the original medical marijuana legislation and the extension bill. "I'd be a lot less nervous if I had four years to work this out, than if I had two."
But Rauner, a Republican venture capitalist, has indicated he's not a fan of an extension.
Last month, he said through a spokeswoman that there was "a lot of time left to evaluate a pilot program, and we should not extend the program until it has been fully evaluated." It's not clear whether the governor would veto the extension bill, or if he could be persuaded to sign it. Spokeswoman Catherine Kelly told The Associated Press on Monday that the governor's position hasn't changed.
Opponents say extending the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program is a step toward wholesale legalization, pushed by the same people who support decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot.
"This is not about compassion," said Sen. Kyle McCarter, a Republican from Lebanon. "This extension is just so they can solicit more users and they can improve their business model."
But marijuana entrepreneurs plan to appeal to the governor's business sense, seeking to convince him that more years for the program would translate into a stronger industry and more capital investment. They'll argue that more time would mean more data, which lawmakers ultimately could use to judge the pilot program's value to the state.
The first year of the four-year pilot program was clouded by unexpected lags, lengthy rule-writing and lower-than-expected interest from potential patients, who represent the demand side of the new market.
Delays with FBI background checks and questions about how former Gov. Pat Quinn's administration handled industry applications evolved into lawsuits. In one case, a judge halted a marijuana cultivation permit in Kankakee and ordered the release of applications and other formerly secret documents to attorneys.
Scott, the suburban business owner, makes a case that all new businesses need a year to ramp up. Under the current timeline, lawmakers would end up evaluating the pilot program based only on a ramp-up year. The extension could add almost two years to the program.
The state has issued about 2,300 approval letters to qualifying marijuana patients since September. The Illinois Department of Public Health has said about 20,800 people have logged onto the program's patient application website.
Cultivation companies are building facilities and hiring workers. Every step brings into play first-time regulations and new government processes. For instance, workers must have state-issued ID cards, but growers are waiting for the Illinois Department of Agriculture to post information on how workers can apply for them.
"The Department will publish the application information in the coming weeks, as soon as it is finalized," Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Kristi Jones said in an email.
Some growers said they are still confident the program will succeed even with a Rauner veto.
"We believe very strongly in this program and medical cannabis," said Tim O'Hern of Nature's Grace and Wellness, a cultivation center in Vermont, Illinois. "Even under the current timeframes, the industry will prove itself as a benefit to the citizens of Illinois."
The bill is HB3299.

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