- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) - A Cook County judge on Wednesday halted a medical marijuana-growing operation, granting a temporary restraining order that heightened concerns about legal challenges over how Illinois issued cannabis licenses.

In the first lawsuit filed against the state over the marijuana program, Judge Kathleen Kennedy’s action puts on hold a permit for Chicago-based Cresco Labs to grow marijuana in Kankakee.

Around the state, growers expecting permits are watching the case with concern because it lays out a legal strategy for losing applicants to reopen the process.

The case involves a challenge from Chicago-based PM Rx, a company that lost in the competition for the sole cultivation license in a region that covers Ford, Iroquois and Kankakee counties.

PM Rx claims the Illinois Department of Agriculture broke its own rules when choosing growers.

A delay will allow PM Rx’s attorneys to review applications and other documents related to ranking the applicants, the judge said.

“Following the rules outweighs potential delays” in the affected district, Kennedy said. She said what she’s heard so far persuades her that required background checks haven’t been completed and the Department of Agriculture may not have followed its own point system.

Attorney Alice Keane of the Illinois attorney general’s office said the agriculture department plans to appeal the ruling.

Questions about the marijuana licensing process began during former Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration. The Chicago Democrat didn’t issue licenses before he left office, leaving the job to Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Rauner’s office announced 18 cultivation permit winners on Feb. 2, three weeks after the Republican took office. That day, Rauner’s general counsel, Jason Barclay, released a statement listing problems in the Quinn process that had created “a risk of substantial and costly litigation” to the state.

But secrecy around the process prevented PM Rx from knowing how its application may have been affected by those problems, according to the plaintiff’s attorney, John Rooks.

Kennedy set the next hearing for Tuesday, saying she wants to expedite the court schedule to minimize delays. The lawsuit must be amended to add Cresco Labs, the judge said, so that company can make its own case in court.

Cresco Labs President Joe Caltabiano said the delay hurts patients. “It is disappointing that they have to suffer while the legal maneuvering runs its course,” Caltabiano said in a statement.

PM Rx CEO Andy James also mentioned patients after the ruling: “The governor was handed this mess,” James said in a statement. “We hope he keeps the patients in mind as he reviews this, not tearing up the law, but giving them the transparency and clarity they deserve by tearing up the faulty process that brought us here.”

Also Wednesday, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced that 1,600 patients have now been approved for the cannabis program. That’s 600 more than one month ago, but it’s still far short of the “tens of thousands” of patients program coordinator Bob Morgan said back in July that he hoped would enroll in the first year.

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

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