Illinois Lawmakers Pass Bill that Allows Patients to Trade Opioids for Medical Marijuana

Under the approved bill, patients prescribed opioid drugs would immediately qualify for the state’s medical marijuana program.

On the last day of the spring legislative session, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation that allows patients prescribed opioid painkillers by their doctors to trade their prescription in for medical marijuana, potentially expanding legal access to cannabis to millions more patients throughout the state.

The Alternatives to Opioids Act (Senate Bill 336), which has been sent to Governor Bruce Rauner for consideration, would allow adults ages 21 years and older who have been prescribed opioids to get near-immediate access to cannabis products at licensed dispensaries.

The bill is meant to offer a safer pain management alternative to harmful opioid drugs. Opioids-related overdoses claim the lives of an average of 90 Americans everyday, and as many as one in four patients who take opioids long term struggle with addiction.

Marijuana, which substantial evidence indicates effective for chronic pain, has never caused a fatal overdose as reported by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“As we see the horrible damage inflicted by opioid use and misuse, it seems like a very low-cost and low-risk alternative,” said Illinois state Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park and a lead sponsor of the bill.

Studies have found that legal access to medical marijuana is associated with reduced opioid intake and opioid-related hospitalizations, and fewer deaths from opioid overdose.

“I think it will save a lot of people’s lives to be quite honest,” said Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), when asked about the bill. It will offer “both a lifeline to those patients who are being prescribed opioid-based painkillers, as well as the medical cannabis industry in Illinois.”

The bill also streamlines the approval process for medical marijuana. Rather than having to go through the fingerprinting and criminal background checks, a process that can take months, patients with prescriptions for opioids could simply present that paperwork signed by their doctor to dispensaries and purchase medical marijuana.

While the background check requirements have caused a bottleneck and a backup of patient approvals, the changes could lead to a dramatic growth in Illinois’ medical marijuana program. The Chicago Tribune reports that there are about 37,000 licensed medical marijuana users now, while there were about 8 million opioid prescriptions filled in the state in 2015.

Rauner has 60 days from the day he received the bill to either sign or veto the measure. He has been opposed to most expansion of marijuana laws in the past and has not yet made any indication on whether he will sign the bill.

Rauner faces reelection this November. His major Democratic opponent, J.B. Pritzker, favors legalized adult use marijuana and greater access to medical marijuana. Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh has said that Pritzker “supports expanding the use of medical marijuana for patients who need it as an alternative to opioids.”

If the bill is signed into law, it will be a pilot program through June 30, 2020.

marijuana or opioids pain

Illinois’ Cannabis Laws

Illinois is one of 29 U.S. states to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. Since taking effect in 2013, the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program allows prescribed users to purchase and consume up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana over a 14-day period. Rauner extended the state pilot program last year to at least July 2020, and the state currently has 54 licensed cannabis dispensaries.

Illinois lawmakers have discussed legalizing adult use marijuana, with some arguing that doing so could help address the state’s budget issues. Despite that 66 percent of Illinoisans are in favor of full legalization, Rauner has said he is opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana at this time. He did sign a decriminalization bill last year that made the possession of 10 grams or less a civil offense punishable by a fine rather than a misdemeanor.

Earlier this month, Illinois lawmakers approved a bill that would lift prohibitions on the cultivation of hemp and establish a legal framework for Illinoisans licensed by the state Department of Agriculture to grow and process the crop. That bill has also been sent to Rauner for consideration.

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