- Associated Press - Thursday, February 5, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) - Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner awarded licenses this week to 70 medical marijuana businesses before out-of-state criminal background checks could be done through an FBI database, as required under state law.

Rauner issued the licenses Monday after conducting an internal review that noted flaws in former Gov. Pat Quinn’s handling of the license process. But Rauner’s announcement didn’t mention the lack of national criminal background checks for the new industry he’d just launched.

Illinois State Police officials told The Associated Press that no out-of-state criminal history checks have been done. The agency is still waiting for the FBI to approve access to its database. In addition, about 1,000 patients have been approved for the program without federal criminal checks.

It’s not clear whether crimes will turn up in the checks or whether any businesses will lose their licenses. “It would have been better if (federal background checks) had been done beforehand,” said Rep. Lou Lang, who sponsored the Illinois law, but he added it was important to get the program started for patients who are waiting for relief.

Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said the governor’s office knew the FBI had not yet authorized use of its database. “We do not believe it poses any risk to the integrity of the program, because as soon as the FBI grants approval, these checks can be run and licensing actions still can be taken,” Trover said.

It’s the latest twist in a program troubled by delays. Quinn, a Democrat, left office without issuing the licenses, saying he didn’t want to rush the process and would turn it over to Rauner, a Republican.

National criminal background checks are standard in states with medical marijuana programs and are important to reassure the public about the industry’s legitimacy, said policy experts and security consultants. Some people in the business have criminal records, said Michael Mayes, CEO of Quantum 9, a Chicago-based marijuana industry consultant.

“It’s incredibly difficult to find a master cultivator with 10 to 20 years of experience who hasn’t been convicted of a minor or major drug offense,” said Mayes, adding he’s worried about people being bounced out of the program once the FBI checks are done.

Anyone convicted of a violent crime or drug felony must be excluded from the program, according to Illinois’ medical marijuana law. Exceptions can be made for people convicted of drug crimes related to medical use, but there’s no exception for crimes involving growing marijuana for recreational use.

“This is something state regulators need to focus on with great interest as this program goes on,” said Arnette Heintze, CEO of Hillard Heintze, a security risk management firm in Chicago. “You want the citizens to feel there is the right governance over the program. I have confidence that will happen in Illinois.”

Lang, the legislation sponsor, said state regulators have the power to revoke business licenses later. “Convicted drug felons will not be owning medical marijuana facilities in Illinois,” he said, noting the first legal marijuana won’t be grown and sold for four to six months.

In his last hours as governor, Quinn signed a measure that cleaned up language in the original law. The FBI is reviewing the reworded statute.

If the FBI approves the new language, there are still steps that must be taken. The FBI and the Illinois State Police will need to revise software and give those new protocols to fingerprint vendors and three state agencies involved, officials said. When that’s done, background checks can begin.

Steve Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, said the FBI has approved “a number of state statutes” elsewhere for access to agency records for marijuana business background checks. He referred questions about Illinois to state officials.

Charles Houghton, a Colorado attorney and marijuana industry consultant, said he’s surprised Illinois issued the licenses before the FBI checks.

“To be in this industry, one of the criteria is you don’t have any drug-related felonies,” Houghton said.

Peter Schweda, a partner in Nature’s Grace and Wellness, which won a cultivation center license in central Illinois, said his company paid a security firm to run thorough background checks on their principals. They didn’t want any last-minute surprises.

“We did our background checks early and got it out of the way. They did our entire lives… If you took a Slim Jim from a 7-Eleven they’re going to know about it,” Schweda said.


Carla K. Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson

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