Governor Bruce Rauner signed a measure on Tuesday that will allow medical cannabis to be used as an alternative treatment for conditions often treated with opioids, such as cancer, HIV, Alzheimer’s and more.
The measure creates what’s called the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program. It will allow anyone who has been diagnosed with a condition that can be treated with opioids to receive medicinal marijuana as an alternative treatment option.
State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) sponsored the proposal: “We would ask a doctor to certify as they would with another medical condition, that the patient has a condition for which an opioid has been prescribed or could be prescribed in the ordinary course of care.”
With a certification from a doctor, patients are allowed immediate, temporary access to the medical marijuana program. They do have to apply for a medical marijuana registry identification card. However, with a qualifying condition, they do not have to wait for the Illinois Department of Public Health to approve their application before receiving the drug.
The legislation does not require patients to be fingerprinted or undergo a background check, which is a requirement for the Illinois medical cannabis pilot program. This is to ensure patients receive timely access to medical cannabis when needed.
"This represents fundamentally putting the patients first," said State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago). "Every conversation we had we talked about what it would mean for patients when we pass this law and I am very pleased that we've come up with a solution."
Rauner, a Republican, is still opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana in Illinois, but he championed the use of the drug as an additional health care option at a bill signing event.
"Medical cannabis creates an opportunity to treat pain in a less intrusive, less destructive way than opioids," said Rauner. "This creates an option to save lives."
Rauner said there could be "additional expansions" to the medical marijuana pilot program in the future, but did not mention any details.
Critics of the measure have concerns about patients possibly becoming addicted to marijuana, but Harmon said he's more concerned with the ongoing opioid epidemic.
“There’s talk of medical cannabis being addicting; I don’t know if that’s true," said Harmon. "I do know that opioids are addicting and we’re seeing the ravishing costs of that right now. I’m perfectly comfortable offering this as an alternative course of treatment.”
The Illinois Department of Public Health initially was opposed to the idea, but worked closely with sponsors and advocates and now support the program.
"Just last year in Illinois there were roughly 2.3 million individuals across the state who were prescribed an opioid," said Dr. Nirav Shah with the Illinois Department of Public Health. He said if this program helps reduce the amount of opioids prescribed and used, the department predicts lives will be saved. "It's difficult to predict what the numbers will look like, but we're prepared and encouraging folks to use (medical marijuana)."
Chris Stone is the CEO of HCI Alternatives, a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Springfield and the Metro East. He applauded the governor for signing the legislation.
“This is an answered prayer to so many Illinoisans who until today had two options, suffer with incredible pain or live with the drastic side effects and addictive properties that come with taking opioids,” said Stone in a press release.
The program goes into effect immediately and will stay in effect through June of 2020, ending at the same time as the current medical marijuana program.