QUINCY -- The first time Andy Schnack was approached about trying marijuana for medicinal purposes, his reaction was what you'd expect.
At the time, Schnack was a sophomore on the University of Alabama men's swimming team. After a standout freshman season that saw him score at the Southeastern Conference championships, Schnack had been sidelined by a problem with his left arm. Doctors were trying to figure out what was making Schnack's left arm go numb when he competed.
He was getting a message from the team's massage therapist, a Vietnam vet named Bill.
"Have you ever looked into smoking a little bit of weed? It might help your arm," Bill asked Schnack.
"Bill, you're nuts, man," Schnack replied. "I want to go to law school. I want to work for the FBI. No way."
Fast forward eight years to the summer of 2015.
Schnack would love nothing more than to use medical marijuana to help manage the pain in the arm. Illinois has been slow to start its medical marijuana program, leaving patients like Schnack -- who refuses to use other medications -- in pain while they wait for dispensaries to open later this year.
Schnack, 28, is not only a medical marijuana patient, but he also is working in the medical marijuana industry. He is the manager for Herbal Remedies LLC, the Quincy-based company which will open a dispensary later this year in the Courts of Broadway, 4400 Broadway. He previously worked in the industry when he lived in Colorado, and he is eager to help those who are suffering in his hometown.
"We're not trying to get you hooked on drugs or anything like that," he said. "We're trying to help you. We're trying to get you well. We're not trying to get people stoned. We're trying to get them well."
Schnack was part of a group of highly successful swimmers who swam for the Sheridan Swim Club and Quincy High School a decade ago. The programs were cranking out NCAA Division I swimmers on a regular basis at the time. Schnack scored points at the IHSA state meet as a senior in 2005, finishing sixth in the 100-yard backstroke. He opted to walk on and swim at Alabama.
He was swimming at a meet at Auburn University early in his sophomore season when the injury first cropped up.
"My arm just started killing me," he said. "I finished the race, but our trainers knew something was wrong by how I was swimming. They helped me get out of the pool. I had no pulse in my arm, and it was blue and tingling."
Schnack began a medical odyssey which to this point has included the diagnosis of a rare condition, five surgeries, the loss of a rib, and an entirely new job path -- one he never would have envisioned before his ailment was discovered.
After going through a battery of tests, Schnack was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which is sometimes found in athletes. Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter and current Cardinals pitcher Jamie Garcia also have been diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome.
Symptoms happen after the compression of nerves or blood vessels because of an inadequate passage in the thoracic outlet between the base of the neck and the person's armpit. Symptoms can include pain in the person's neck, shoulder or arm and numbness and tingling in the fingers.
Doctors originally tried to have Schnack rest the injury. That didn't work, so they started to turn to surgery. At first, doctors tried to shave down some of his muscle to free up blockage. That procedure didn't work.
The next pitch to help Schnack save his swimming career was an odd one. Doctors wanted to remove one of his ribs to see if that might allow things to properly function as he swam.
Schnack did plenty of research and decided that taking out the rib was the best way to continue swimming, which had been a huge part of his life since he was 6 years old.
"It ended up being maybe the worst decision of my life," Schnack said. "After that my problems got way worse. I tried swimming again and had the same problems, if not worse than before."
Turning to cannabis
In the months after his rib surgery, Schnack was prescribed a number of drugs to help douse the pain he felt. None of them worked.
"I was on a cocktail of stuff that messed with your head more than anything," he said.
He started to think back to what Bill said on that training room table in the Alabama locker room. Schnack was ready to give marijuana a try.
"I had two hits, and everything just kind of slowed down a little bit. I did get giggly and experienced that euphoria," Schnack said. "It helped. Everything just slowed down. It was still hurting, but the pain was not on front of my mind. It wasn't eating me up and giving me anxiety."
Schnack, who comes from a family of people who have practiced law, eventually went to law school at Valparaiso University. However, the pain in his arm was so bad that he was having trouble concentrating on school, and there was little he could to do stop the pain -- unless he used cannabis.
"I would use it so sparingly because I didn't know how to go about buying it. I didn't know how to find a dealer," he said. "The little bit that I had, I treasured it and kept it for those nights when my arm was killing me."
Unable to function in school, Schnack chose a different career path. With a love for music -- he used to play the drums -- and a knack for computer work, he went to a school in Arizona to earn an audio engineering degree.
As part of the program, he complete an internship in Los Angeles. California was one of the first states to allow medical marijuana to be sold. He finally could see if cannabis could be the cure for his ailments without having to hide or find a dealer to help soothe his pain.
"In California, I had real access to medicine and not just weed that some guy was selling me off the street," Schnack said. "It's not just about smoking. Hundreds of different strains out there all have different cannabinoid content. They all have a different medicinal recipe. There are strains that don't get you high. It just helps with our pain.
"There are so many ways you can medicate any more, which I think is something people are having a hard time understanding. We don't recommend that people smoke. The only time we recommend that they inhale their medicine is if they need immediate relief."
After his internship, Schnack moved to Colorado and began working in the marijuana industry. Although both recreational and medicinal marijuana is legal in Colorado, Schnack worked for a medicinal marijuana facility.
When he learned that Illinois had approved medical marijuana, Schnack moved home, eager to share with people what he has learned.
"It saves lives," he said. "It's an amazing thing and I've seen that. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe in it myself."
One problem: Schnack hasn't had access to his medicine since moving here in April. He medicated with drops that he would put in his drink and a lotion that he would rub on his arm. Neither of those is an option now. Today in Illinois, he can't legally have either product.
"I don't have anything, and it sucks," he said.
Playing the waiting game
No dispensaries have opened yet, but they are expected to be in operation later this year. The state's pilot program is set to expire in 2017. Gov. Bruce Rauner hasn't said whether he will sign a bill that would extend the program to four years after sales begin. The law originally went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014, but it has been stuck in neutral.
"We have to go through as many restrictions and compliance as Las Vegas casinos, a liquor store and a pharmacy all in one," Schnack said. "And it's like a jewelry store, too, in terms of inventory and security we are going to need there. It's pretty insane.
"This is about as serious as it can get. Illinois has the most-strict cannabis bill that you can get."
The Illinois Department of Public Health earlier this month reported that approximately 21,800 people have started the state's medical cannabis pilot program patient registry application process since the state opened the rolls on Sept. 2. The department has issued almost 2,500 approval letters to qualifying patients. To compare, California has more than 572,000 patients and Michigan has just shy of 150,000.
Schnack said selling doctors on the benefits of medicinal marijuana will be the biggest hurdle for those operating dispensaries in Illinois.
"There are patients who have qualifying conditions and go to a doctor and they say no (to medical marijuana)," Schnack said. "Some of them will not even do research on it to see if it helps their patients. They think, ‘If I write this (prescription), is the DEA going to jump down my back?' If its a moral thing that is preventing them from writing this recommendation, they should probably rethink their career as a physician. If you're not going to accept every option or form of wellness for a patient, you are not helping them at all."
Schnack is willing to fight for medical marijuana so those who need it can benefit from it like he has.
"I was a DARE kid growing up, and I wanted to work in the FBI," he said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be selling medical cannabis for a living. It's had such a dramatic impact on my life that I want to be able to share this story with the community that I'm from.
"I know there probably is a lot of people who are just as scared of it as I was who could really benefit from it."