In his three-piece suit, Joseph Wright (LAW ’13) resembles a young James Bond, a man of international daring and intrigue. Yet when he mentions his work with Cannabis, the mystique fades and he’s often hit with a barrage of jokes befitting a Cheech & Chong flick.
“Cannabis has a long history connected with amusing things, so you have to have a sense of humor to do this job,” says Wright, 31, who was appointed last June to serve as director of the State of Illinois Medical Cannabis Pilot Program. “But it’s also a serious medical program.”
Established by the passage of the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act in August 2013, the Illinois program isn’t the first for the Midwest—Michigan legalized medical Cannabis in 2008—but it is considered one of the nation’s most restrictive.
Patients must undergo background checks and be certified as having one of 39 qualifying medical conditions. Plus, patients are not allowed to grow their own pot. Certifying physicians must prove a prior and ongoing medical relationship with the patient. Licensed growers must comply with zoning laws, maintain 24-hour surveillance, and ensure strict inventory control.
Approximately 7,000 patients have enrolled in the program since its launch in November 2015, and up to 200 new applications arrive every week. Still, the fledgling program is not without its challenges. Some doctors refuse to sign patient identification cards, which certify that a person has a qualifying condition, because they think it’s the same as writing a prescription. Growers struggle with zoning and product quality issues—there’s no federal standard, for example, on how much pesticide is safe to allow in weed—and the task of building an industry where none previously existed.
Fortunately Wright, who recently restored a 1979 Yamaha XS 650 motorcycle, enjoys solving problems and building things.
“What enticed me about this job was the challenge to help create this program and put it on solid footing. It’s a fantastic opportunity to build something that hopefully makes people’s lives better,” he says.
Serving as director was a natural leap for Wright, who spent six months solving issues with the program’s grower licenses while working as a lawyer in the Office of Governor Bruce Rauner. His previous posts include serving as a law clerk for Holland & Knight, the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
Chicago magazine recently dubbed him the “Cannabis King,” and it appears that Wright’s reign may continue through 2020 after the Illinois legislature and Governor Rauner recently agreed to extend the pilot program. While Wright admits that there seems to be an endless amount of issues and legal questions around Cannabis, he intends to embrace the task before him. He knows that an increasing number of individuals are depending upon him and his team.
“The patient population in Illinois appears to be growing in a manner consistent with other highly regulated medical Cannabis states—starting small and rising steadily over time,” he says. “Overall, the trajectory of the program points upward.”