Kirsten Velasco: Advancing the State of Cannabis in Illinois through Public Outreach

Kirsten Velasco has presented about medical cannabis in over 70 public libraries across the state of Illinois.

Velasco, director of Illinois Women in Cannabis, said after her activist niece taught her about medical cannabis in 2015, she became enthralled by the events in Chicago that were the discovery process for Illinois’ medical cannabis rules and regulations.

She decided to make proposals to local libraries to talk about medical cannabis. Her mission:

 “When you’re speaking to the public, having a broad approach is based on the fact that if the public at large does not accept the safety of medical cannabis, we cannot move forward to federal legalization.”

Velasco talked about her approach to public education and the state of the Illinois cannabis industry with Cashinbis.

What’s the public’s reaction to your presentations in libraries across the state?

There’s a demographic of advanced adults who are stubborn and set in their ways. Then there are people already comfortable with cannabis who believe that it provides relief.

There might be one out of twenty in the back rolling their eyes. I love having people who are resistant to this in the room, because I know they’re only a little bit of information away from having cognitive dissonance, and then they will wonder, “What am I going to go home and tell my kids?” Adults continuing the [cannabis danger] propaganda are fighting a losing battle.

There are always the people who confide in me, “My brother has MS and uses medical cannabis.” There’s always a personal connection.

In Illinois, we’re at one tenth of the market that cannabis industry investors have planned for. If we can get the message to everyone about safe and effective medical cannabis, we can eliminate the intimidation of our neighbors.

What’s the status of the Illinois medical cannabis program?

My impression is that there’s more people applying than the Illinois Department of Public Health can process. They approve 1,200 cards a month, and the length of time is continuing to increase, up to 60-75 days.

In the political realm, there was a process for patients to petition the state and the advisory board would hear their testimony. That board would only recommend adding a condition to the program if there was a unanimous decision to approve it. They wouldn’t add Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, so it became a lawsuit – in the program’s 2020 extension PTSD and terminal illness was exchanged for dismantling the advisory board, which gave Shah [Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health] total authority on what is added.

Bruce Rauner’s [Illinois Governor] stance is don’t touch this program. No politician will take responsibility for its success or failure, so there’s a lack of government support. Here in Illinois we’re a Fire At Will state – if I’m applying for a job I can get drug tested and lose my job. We can’t get rid of discriminatory practices until we ensure the safety and efficiency of the program. Politicians won’t accept it until there’s resounding social pressure and their constituents, the vast majority ask for it.

What’s happening with recreational cannabis in Illinois?

Legislatively, recreational cannabis is right around the corner.

In 2016, $1.3 billion in recreational was sold in Colorado and they have less than half the population of Illinois. There’s speculation it could be [projected] close to $2.8 billion in Illinois.

There are two legislators – State Representative Kelly Cassidy and Senator Heather Steans are co-sponsoring a recreational adult use cannabis law. There are already hearings for discovery and their strategy is educating co-legislators over 12 to 18 months to get their support so that when it comes up for a vote, it passes.

California has a problem with under-regulating and Illinois has a problem with over-regulating. I think it will be an easier transition for Illinois if we use Colorado’s model.

What’s next if Illinois passes recreational cannabis?

I’m very supportive of recreational cannabis in Illinois. But if we go too ‘recreational’ and it becomes regulated like alcohol – sociologically it sends the message that this is a vice, that it’s a dangerous, addictive, gateway drug. Imagine if everyone understands that cannabis is a safe, effective medicine – that it has nutraceutical, pharmaceutical health benefits.

What are the other benefits of legalization?

Beyond the pharmaceutical market, we have the cosmetic market where it can be used in skin products, in hair products, in skin ointment. Then there’s the agricultural market, which holds a strong place in my heart – we can take textiles, food, and oil from the hemp plant and revitalize American farming.

Now I’ve illustrated that we have retail and medicine, and with education comes cosmetic and agricultural aspects.

That’s why I can’t sleep at night and that’s why I grind away. If I can light that fire in one person, we’ll be closer to this vision of the industry.

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