Should I Keep My Medical Marijuana Card? Answers To Your Legal Weed Questions

An illustration of an Illinois medical marijuana registration card
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
An illustration of an Illinois medical marijuana registration card
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

Should I Keep My Medical Marijuana Card? Answers To Your Legal Weed Questions

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

This question about legal weed comes from Chicagoan Mary Clare Bietila, who’s been using marijuana legally for years under Illinois’ medical cannabis program.

Most medical marijuana patients have to renew their card each year by meeting with their physician, filling out paperwork and paying a $100 annual fee.

“It’s burdensome and expensive,” Bietila said. So she wanted to know whether it’s worth it to keep her medical card once weed becomes more readily available throughout the state. Or should she give up the card and the red tape it requires and buy recreational cannabis as needed?

Experts say when deciding whether to ditch your card, it’s important to think about the cost differences between cannabis in the medical versus recreational markets, and how you’ll be able to access the products you need.

Here’s a quick breakdown of things to consider.

What will it cost me?

Currently, medical marijuana users pay a $100 filing fee plus a 1% sales tax on every product they buy. Neither of those rules are changing under the new law.

To buy recreational weed, all you need is an I.D. But recreational users will be taxed based on the strength of the product — anywhere from 10 to 25%. They also have to pay 6.25% sales tax and any sales taxes imposed by their municipality. The Marijuana Policy Project breaks down that tax structure in detail here.

So say you spend $1,000 on cannabis annually: your total as a medical user is around $1,110. Under the recreational market, a consumer would pay anywhere from $1,150 to at least $1,300 per year for the same products, depending on local taxes.

For medical users who don’t spend much money on cannabis, it’s worth doing the math to see whether it’d be cost effective to switch to the recreational market.

Will I have access to my products?

Experts say there’s more than just cost to consider.

“I think product shortages are a real concern,” said Eli McVey, a researcher at Marijuana Business Daily which covers cannabis industries across the country. “Product shortages are a concern in every new cannabis market.”

But McVey said Illinois has one of the tightest caps on the number of licenses it will grant to new growers and dispensaries.

That means the state’s existing medical cultivators and dispensaries will be the first places to serve recreational users in the first few months of legalization.

“So there’s some concern that [those] existing medical marijuana businesses won’t be able to meet that initial demand once the market opens up next year,” he said.

But there are protections for medical users. The law requires dispensaries to put medical marijuana patients first in case there’s not enough cannabis to go around.

That’s why McVey and State Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield, who helped write the law, agree that it’s a risk for medical users to switch to the recreational market.

The law has other carve outs, too: Medical card holders can grow up to five plants at home. Recreational users can’t grow at home at all.

Card holders can buy more than double the amount of cannabis than recreational patients.

Nonetheless, states tend to see a drop off in the number of medical card holders once recreational weed becomes legal, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. The report found that the decline comes from consumers who, ill or not, got medical cards because it was the only way to buy marijuana legally.

Bietila said she’ll keep her card for now to treat the side effects of radiation therapy for leukemia.

Mary Clare Bietila

Mary Clare Bietila, 41, is a writer and educator. She was diagnosed with AML Leukemia in 2014 and relapsed in 2017. Mary Clare is passionate about advocating for young adults with cancer. She lives in Hyde Park with her husband, David, and daughter, Twila.

Mariah Woelfel is a producer at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.