Illinois residents will now be able to seek out medical marijuana as an alternative to opioid painkillers through a new program allowing patients with prescriptions for opioids to instead opt for temporary access to the plant.
The Opioid Alternative Pilot Program was approved by the state legislature in an overwhelming vote last year of 44-6 by lawmakers hoping to curb a deadly epidemic of overdoses that claim over 100 lives per day.
In a statement, Illinois Department of Public Health spokesperson Melaney Arnold said:
“Along with the physician certification, a passport-like photo, copy of driver’s license/state ID, proof of Illinois address, and $10 payment is required … The OAPP offers individuals who have been or could be prescribed an opioid, another option for managing their pain.”
Under the program, anyone qualifying for a prescription for common opioids like Vicodin, OxyContin, or Percocet will be authorized to use cannabis, be it in its dry herbal form or in its myriad derivatives such as waxes, oils, or medicated food products.
The measure removes a number of burdens related to the state’s medical marijuana program, including requirements that applicants must be fingerprinted and have their criminal backgrounds screened.
Patients will be required to receive an Illinois Cannabis Tracking System certification from their doctors, upon which they can register online for a 90-day medical cannabis license that costs $10 and allows access to a maximum of 2.5 ounces every two weeks.
Upon signing the bill last August, Governor Bruce Rauner cited the massive scale of the narcotics problem in the state along with the proven health benefits of cannabis as reason for passing the law. The governor said:
“We’ve got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic … We are creating an alternative to opioid addiction. … It’s clear that medical marijuana treats pain effectively, and is less addictive and disruptive than opioids.”
In recent years, drug overdose deaths have reached monstrous proportions, with 65,000 fatal drug overdoses taking place in 2017 alone. In 2016, almost 2,000 people in Illinois died from narcotics overdoses – an 82 percent increase since 2013.
Many who abuse the pills have prolonged addictive fixations on opioids, with the hardest-hit age group ranging from 25 to 34 years old. Out of that age group, 12,325 died in 2017, among whom two-thirds were men.
The program comes as data from various studies attest to the medical and health benefits of cannabis as a credible alternative to pharmaceutical drugs.
It also comes as recent court filings from a major lawsuit by the Massachusetts attorney general against Purdue Pharma, the company responsible for making the OxyContin narcotic pill, reveal how Big Pharma executives deliberately misled doctors and patients about the dangerous and addictive nature of the opioid in hopes of maximizing company profits.
Chris Stone, the owner of Illinois medical cannabis dispensary HCI Alternatives, told local news station WQAD 8 that he hopes authorities track the positive results that he’s sure will result from the program.
“Hopefully as they take statistics on this and they see this program over the first twelve months, be able to do the data mining and the research and the surveying to hopefully see those deaths go down and the additional cases go down,” he said.
In 1996, California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medical use, and more than 30 states have since done the same.
Illinois followed suit in 2013 with the Compassionate Use of Medicinal Cannabis Pilot Program with 34,000 people having been approved for the program as of 2018.
Ten states along with Washington, D.C. have freed the herb almost entirely, allowing adults over 21 to partake in the recreational use of marijuana. However, cannabis remains illegal under U.S. federal law.