Rauner signs bill allowing medical marijuana alternative for opioid prescriptions

Rauner signs bill allowing medical marijuana alternative for opioid prescriptions

The Alternative to Opioids Act will give more Illinoisans the option to treat pain with medical marijuana.

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 336 into law Aug. 28, a measure that significantly expands Illinois’ medical marijuana program by enabling patients to access medical marijuana in place of pharmaceutical opioid medications.

The new law, known as the Alternative to Opioids Act, comes amid a nationwide struggle with fatal opioid overdoses, which claimed more than 72,000 lives last year. Effective immediately, physicians will have the authority to offer medical marijuana as an alternative to any patient holding – or qualified to hold – prescriptions for painkillers, such as Vicodin or Oxycontin.

SB 336 also lifts restrictions included in Illinois’ original medical marijuana law, the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, which took effect January 2014. That law required providers to fingerprint and perform criminal background checks on all applicants. In fiscal year 2017, the Illinois Department of Public Health denied 635 qualifying patients, some solely on the basis of failed background checks. The new law eliminates the fingerprint and background check requirements.

Illinois is one of 31 states in the country that administers a medical marijuana program, and it’s among the most restrictive. The state lists around 40 debilitating conditions with which patients must be afflicted to qualify, according to the Chicago Tribune. The medical marijuana program has treated around 42,000 patients since 2015, the Tribune notes, compared with nearly 6 million opioid prescriptions filled in 2017 alone.

Marijuana has been shown to alleviate severe pain and other symptoms of chronic medical conditions. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Pain Research, for example, found medical cannabis users in Michigan saw an “improvement in quality of life, better side effect profile, and decreased opioid use.” Researchers saw a 64 percent drop in the use of opioids among patients treated with medical marijuana.

Another study published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2017 concurred, reporting that “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.”

Rauner’s signing of SB 336 follows another measure seemingly planting the seeds for the state’s growing openness to cannabis. Senate Bill 2298, signed by the governor Aug. 26, lifted restrictions on the industrial production of hemp. That bill was sponsored by state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Chicago Heights.

Illinois’ medical marijuana program is set to expire July 2020. It remains to be seen whether Springfield’s recent bipartisan push toward more relaxed marijuana laws moves the state in the direction of legalization.

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