SPRINGFIELD — Steps taken to streamline approvals for patients seeking medical marijuana in Illinois took effect too late to help a Taylorville man and possibly thousands of others caught in a deluge of applications last year.

Scott Wilbur, 61, waited almost three months for his application for the state's medical-marijuana pilot program to be approved.

He received his approval letter Friday but said he had hoped to benefit sooner from the appetite-enhancing and anxiety-reducing properties of legal cannabis during treatment for nasal cancer that was diagnosed in mid-November.

"I guess the program works, but it worked slower than I wanted it to," said Wilbur, a U.S. Navy veteran and retired Methodist minister. "Why are they being so tight with this program?"

Wilbur said he will use his membership in the program to patronize a Springfield dispensary and buy cannabis he can ingest or inhale with a vaporizer to deal with the aftermath of treatment that has left him depressed and uninterested in the Boost nutritional drinks in his refrigerator.

Wilbur applied for a marijuana registry card in late November, during the last quarter of 2018. That was when the state experienced a more than 50 percent increase in applications, according to Conny Moody, deputy director for health promotion and medical cannabis.

She attributed the increase to the "enormous interest in this program" that has been building since applications began to be accepted in 2014.

The surge took place before the state's Opioid Alternative Pilot Program began in late January. That program, available only through an online portal, makes patients temporarily eligible to buy cannabis if they have or would qualify for opioid painkiller prescriptions.

Wilbur was applying for the original marijuana pilot program.

IDPH's 13-member, Springfield-based staff handling medical-marijuana applications from across the state also were processing hundreds of renewal applications last year from existing patients in the marijuana registry, Moody said.

About 63,000 patients and 12,000 caregivers have been accepted into the regular medical-marijuana program after their doctors told the state the patients had cancer or one of the other more than 35 qualifying conditions, Moody said.

IDPH says that as of Friday, 196 patients had been registered for the opioid alternative program, and another 317 patients were awaiting certification from doctors to complete registration requirements. That program is designed to reduce opioid-overdose deaths.

Legislation approved by the General Assembly and former Gov. Bruce Rauner in summer 2018 created a quick process for all prospective medical-marijuana patients, including opioid patients, to get "provisional," or temporary, access to cannabis dispensaries within a day or less while their applications were processed.

Administrative rules put in place to carry out the 2018 legislation gave people who applied online for the traditional medical-marijuana program Dec. 1 and beyond the option to seek quick, provisional approval. Provisional approvals for those patients began to be issued Feb. 1.

But that process didn't help Wilbur and an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 other applicants who had to wait several months because they applied for the traditional program before Dec. 1, according to Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.

The surge of applications in late 2018 slowed down processing somewhat, but Moody said she didn't consider applications "delayed" because her staff continued to process applications within the 90-day time period required by the summer legislation.

The original law putting the medical-marijuana program in place called for a 30-day processing period, but staff received so many applications that they were unable to meet that recommendation after the first six months of the program, Moody said.

She added patients deemed "terminal" by their doctors, meaning they were expected to live less than six months, always have been eligible for "expedited" processing of 14 days or less. Wilbur wasn't considered terminal and, in fact, expects to live many more years.

Chris Stone, chief executive officer of HCI Alternatives, said provisional approval for medical-marijuana patients in the traditional program and opioid-alternative program have led to three times as many patients walking through the doors of HCI's dispensaries in Springfield and Collinsville.

Moody said she has $5 million in fiscal 2019 funding from the state for IDPH's part in the medical-marijuana programs. There's some money available to add staff, if need be, to keep up with the influx of new applications, she said.

Many marijuana dispensaries and some local health departments provide free assistance for patients needing help with the online application process, she said. Information about free assistance is available online at bit.ly/hdepartments and bit.ly/ILdispensaries.

The state health department also continues to reach out to doctors so they can let their patients know how to use the streamlined application process, Moody said.

Dr. Timothy Gillison, a medical oncologist at the Springfield Clinic Cancer Center, said at least three of his patients who filed applications to get medical-marijuana cards were frustrated by the wait time.

"While the benefits of medical marijuana are debatable, the legislature of Illinois has legalized its use for medical purposes, and I have seen some benefit in my cancer patients," he said.

Gillison said he was glad to learn of recent improvements in getting patients provisional access to the program.

"It sounds like they are making some progress," he said. "Imagine if it took you three months to get your diabetes medicine."

Wilbur, one of Gillison's patients, said he had to resort to buying marijuana on the black market during his wait for access to legal cannabis. Wilbur said he would prefer to buy cannabis legally.

He and his partner, Margo Wagoner, 60, said they have been frustrated by the state's lack of response to their phone calls, emails and even a personal visit to the IDPH headquarters during the months of waiting.

Moody said she is looking into ways her already busy staff can better serve the public.

Wilbur said marijuana has helped him take less liquid hydrocodone, an opioid medicine, to deal with the pain associated with radiation treatment for cancer. Unlike marijuana, hydrocodone doesn't help with his depression, anxiety and lack of appetite, he said.

Wilbur said he has lost 30 pounds since undergoing treatment.

"I feel a zillion times better after I smoke than when I'm using my hydrocodone," he said.

Wilbur said he is glad he won't have to complain to Gillison anymore about delays in being admitted to the medical-marijuana program.

"It's sort of uncomfortable going to your doctor and saying, 'I'm having problems getting dope,'" he said.