General Assembly passes bill expanding medical marijuana access as opioid alternative

General Assembly passes bill expanding medical marijuana access as opioid alternative

Lawmakers in Springfield are seeking to offer patients with debilitating conditions the option to replace opioids with medical marijuana.

Illinoisans suffering with debilitating medical conditions would see heightened access to medical marijuana under a bill that requires Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature to become law.

Members of the Illinois General Assembly passed Senate Bill 336 in May, which amends the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act by extending the legal use of medical marijuana to individuals who would conventionally be prescribed opioids. This would grant people who suffer from chronic pain, but not necessarily any of the conditions laid out in the current law, access to marijuana – with a prescription.

In Illinois, more than 1,800 people died of opioid overdoses in 2016, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. And from 2006 to 2016, the number of opioid-related fatalities has risen 116 percent in Illinois, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If signed into law, this bill could help address Illinois’ opioid problem while removing regulatory burdens on patients and caregivers. The bill passed with bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate.

In addition to expanding medical marijuana access for patients and doctors seeking alternatives to opioid painkillers, SB 336 would also remove a barrier for Illinoisans who have a criminal record, a restriction put in place as part of Illinois’ original medical marijuana law. In the 2017 fiscal year, the Illinois Department of Public Health denied 635 requests for medical marijuana from qualifying patients. Some of these denials were made solely on the basis of failed background checks. SB 336 does away with such background checks and thus allows more individuals to access appropriate medical treatment.

Marijuana can alleviate painful symptoms of chronic medical conditions. A study published in the Journal of Pain Research, for example, found medical cannabis users in Michigan reported “improvement in quality of life, better side effect profile, and decreased opioid use,” showing a 64 percent drop in the use of opioids among patients treated with medical marijuana. The authors encouraged further research on the subject.

A 2017 study published in the Harm Reduction Journal notes “the growing body of research supporting the medical use of cannabis as an adjunct or substitute for opioids creates an evidence-based rationale for governments … to seek the immediate implementation of cannabis-based interventions in the opioid crisis.”

While the bill has cleared the General Assembly, lawmakers have yet to officially send it to the governor’s desk for his signature.

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