Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner inherited the prickly question of who should get medical marijuana business permits Monday as his predecessor left office without acting on the matter.
In his last hours as governor, Democrat Pat Quinn announced his administration would not issue licenses to get the state's marijuana industry off the ground, although he enacted penalties for violations if and when it does.
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Quinn's last-minute bill signing also cleared the way for FBI background checks, a snag holding up national screening of business applicants.
Rauner, a Republican businessman from Winnetka who took office Monday, now must grapple with launching a complicated but potentially revenue-generating industry. During the campaign, Rauner had criticized the business selection process and suggested auctioning the licenses to the highest qualified bidders.
Brendan Shiller, a Chicago attorney representing multiple applicants, said Rauner's involvement could be a blessing in disguise for his clients — or it could provoke litigation.
"Anyone in this business should want the guy who's going to regulate it to pick the winners and losers," said Shiller, adding that Rauner can't easily dismantle the program. "He can play games, but he can't completely change the process. He'll get sued and he'll lose."
Hundreds of aspiring marijuana businesses are awaiting decisions after submitting applications in September, and potential patients had pushed hard for Quinn to complete the task before leaving office.
But just ahead of Rauner's inauguration, the word came from Quinn spokesman Grant Klinzman: "It shouldn't be rushed out last minute," Klinzman said Monday morning. "The agencies in charge of awarding these licenses have already completed most of the work in full accordance with the law, and the new administration will now administer the rest."
The bill Quinn signed Monday allows state regulators to impose penalties such as fines for violating the medical marijuana law. Previously, they could only revoke licenses.
It also included important language to allow FBI national background checks, which hadn't yet occurred, said Illinois State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond. She said it also "will provide licensing agencies a more complete picture of the applicants' backgrounds."
Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who sponsored the original medical marijuana legislation, criticized the Quinn administration's inaction on the business licenses even before it was announced.
"The inexplicable unwillingness of Governor Quinn to finish the job on the medical marijuana program means one thing: unnecessary prolonged pain and suffering of very sick people," Lang said.
Multiple sclerosis patient Julie Falco, of Chicago, said she's disappointed by the delay.
"Here we sit again at the whims of the politicians and what they decide they're going to do," Falco said. Medical marijuana advocates will push the Rauner administration to act, she said.
Quinn's administration had been aiming to issue licenses to growers and dispensaries by the end of 2014. The state had been planning to award licenses to 21 medical marijuana cultivation centers. It also was expected to authorize up to 60 retailers to sell the drug in what could be a $20 million to $30 million industry.
The state's medical marijuana law went into effect last year, but no legal marijuana has yet been grown or sold.
Applicants included a police chief, a strip club owner and a former tight end for the Chicago Bears, but names and other identifying information had been removed before the applications were scored to prevent any suggestion of political favoritism in a state known for clout-driven decisions. Applications were scored by a group of unidentified people.
Whether those safeguards would have prevented Illinois from problems that arose in other states was unclear. Massachusetts has been accused of running an unfair and arbitrary selection process, and losing companies have sued the Massachusetts health department.
Tareen reported from Springfield.