An outreach group for medical cannabis plans to open a clinic in Southern Illinois that will help patients get registered for the state’s medical marijuana program.

Caprice Sweatt, founder and CEO of Medical Cannabis Outreach, said the facility will open in early December, most likely inc Carbondale, although the location is still to be determined.

Before the opening, the group plans to hold two educational seminars in the area to explain the application process and to educate the public on the drug’s medical uses.

On June 30, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill extending Illinois’ medical marijuana pilot program by 2½ years. The bill also added post-traumatic stress disorder and terminal illness to the list of qualifying medical conditions, which now total 41.

Under the new law, doctors are no longer required to state in recommendations that it is their “professional opinion” that a patient will receive a “therapeutic or palliative benefit” from medical marijuana. They simply have to verify that the patient has a state-recognized qualifying condition.

However, Southern Illinois’ major health care providers – including Southern Illinois Healthcare, Heartland Regional Medical Center and Southern Illinois University School of Medicine – have been hesitant ti back the program. Major health systems and smaller providers have directed physicians not to certify patients for medical marijuana, citing legal concerns.

“This is why we are moving into the area, because there are so many patients in dire need and physicians that are associated with the medical groups in that area that are refusing to sign off,” Sweatt said. “This is a legal medical program, and it’s really disappointing that so many physicians literally refuse to take a look at it,”

In addition to obtaining a physician’s recommendation, patients must undergo a fingerprint-based background check, obtain proof of residency and pay a $300 application fee.

Medical Cannabis Outreach, which travels all over the state to conduct educational seminars, will help patients through each step of the application process and refer them to cannabis-friendly physicians for certification.

“We advocate for the patient, we hold their hand through the whole process, and we make sure they actually get their card in their hand,” Sweatt said.

Medical Cannabis Outreach has also partnered with local marijuana dispensaries Thrive Harrisburg and Thrive Anna to help educate patients.

“I think there’s a lot of people who are curious about the program, especially the new changes that went into effect recently. it’s about education and awareness,” said Thrive co-owner Rosie Naumovski.

A longtime supporter of medical cannabis, Sweatt has used marijuana to treat her Crohn’s disease for the pas 25 years.

“I was on 22 medications a day. I went off all my medications at the age of 25, and I’ve been prescription drug-free since then,” she said.

“I’ve just made it my life’s mission, honestly, to inform people of what happened to me, and we encourage people to be truthful about their own story, because people hide what’s happened to them, too.”

The group’s first educational seminar will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, in Carbondale Public Library. The second seminar will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14, in Mount Vernon Public Library. Both events are free and open to the public.