measure that could dramatically expand access to medical marijuana in Illinois — making it available as an opioid painkiller replacement and easing the application process for all who qualify — is expected to become law on Tuesday.
The measure is a response to the epidemic of overdose deaths from narcotics, which killed almost 2,000 people in the state in 2016 and an estimated 72,000 people nationwide last year. It would allow doctors to authorize medical marijuana for any patient who has or would qualify for a prescription for opioids like OxyContin, Percocet or Vicodin.
But the measure is also noteworthy for removing some of the major restrictions on the medical marijuana program in Illinois.
No longer will any applicants have to be fingerprinted and undergo criminal background checks. And those who complete an online application with a doctor’s authorization will get a provisional registration to buy medical cannabis while they wait for state officials to make a final review of their request.
Rauner is scheduled to sign the bill Tuesday at the Chicago Recovery Alliance, a nonprofit that distributes clean needles and overdose-reversing naloxone, and conducts other programs to help prevent deaths from heroin overdose.
On Monday, a staff member at the alliance was setting up a stage for the signing.
Suzanne Carlberg-Racich, director of research for the alliance and assistant professor of public health at DePaul University, said she welcomes the new law as a way to prevent overdose deaths and provide a less addictive treatment for pain relief.
“This is a great step in the right direction,” she said. “I’m pleased to see an alternative for pain management that doesn’t have any potential for a fatal overdose.”
To qualify for medical cannabis in Illinois, patients must have any of about 40 debilitating medical conditions listed in the law, including cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis. The program — one of the most restrictive among the 31 states that allow medical marijuana — has approved about 42,000 authorized patients, who have bought about $200 million worth of pot since sales started in November 2015.
By contrast, there were almost 6 million opioid prescriptions filled in Illinois in 2017, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. While that may include people with multiple prescriptions, the number suggests the potential increase in the number of patients qualifying for medical cannabis.
The pilot medical cannabis program is due to expire in July 2020. But state lawmakers have proposed legalizing marijuana next year for use by the general public over age 18. The Democratic candidate for governor, J.B. Pritzker, supports the measure, while Rauner opposes it.
State Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park who sponsored the bill, said a patient who got a doctor’s certification to use medical marijuana in place of opioids could do so immediately, without applying to the public health department. Such certifications would be limited to 90 days, but could be renewed.
“It’s an exit ramp for opioid use,” he said.
In general, Rauner has opposed expanding the medical marijuana program, but a recent poll showing Pritzker with a large lead may have put pressure on him to support the politically popular measure. In addition, Rauner recently approved other measures requiring insurance coverage for opioid abuse and continuing education for doctors about opioid prescriptions.
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, raised concerns about the expansion of medical marijuana, warning that it could lead to more addiction, more drivers who are under the influence and more users suffering from the drug’s harmful effects on attention, memory, decision-making and brain development.
“From a scientific perspective, it makes no sense,” Sabet said. “The most comprehensive study on the issue was just published in The Lancet and found marijuana didn’t help with pain, nor did it reduce opioid use.
“From a political perspective,” Sabet added, “it likely signals he feels pressure from J.B. Pritzker, who has welcomed pot with open arms.”
But in states that have legalized medical marijuana, some studies have shown a decrease in opioid prescriptions and in opioid-related overdose deaths. Cannabis remains illegal under federal law.
Tim McAnarney, an Illinois lobbyist with Sabet’s group, said it doesn’t oppose medical marijuana or decriminalization, but opposes legalization, and feels the new law will be far too expansive.
“This bill should have been much stricter on who is eligible to access marijuana,” he said. Medical marijuana in the form of cookies, candies and lollipops are dangerously appealing to children, he said.
Aaron Weiner, director of addiction services for Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville, said the legislation was a missed opportunity to correct a “deeply flawed” medical marijuana program in Illinois.
Medical marijuana is available in extracts that are up to 93 percent THC, the active ingredient that makes users high, the effects of which have never been studied sufficiently, he said. And Illinois medical marijuana patients can buy up to 2.5 ounces every two weeks, enough for about 10 joints a day, far more than typically necessary and more than enough to develop an addiction, he said.
Weiner will debate marijuana uses with a representative from a sponsor of the legalization bill, state Sen. Heather Steans, at 7 p.m. Tuesday at LaGrange Village Hall.
Medical marijuana industry leaders were ecstatic at the news that Rauner would endorse the legislative measure.
Ben Kovler, founder and chairman of GTI, which has both cultivation centers and dispensaries in Illinois, issued a statement calling Tuesday “a great day” for tackling the state’s opioid epidemic and saving lives.
“Now those suffering from pain can opt for medical marijuana — which has zero deaths related to overdose — over opioids,” he said. “Numerous studies show that marijuana is effective at treating pain and we are thrilled the people of Illinois will now have that choice.”