Can Medical Marijuana Help Combat Illinois’ Opioid Crisis

Photo Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Illinois lawmakers have come up with an unusual solution to combat its opioid crisis, allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana instead of opiates as a way to curb a growing epidemic.

Doctors could choose to temporarily prescribe cannabis for patients who suffer from conditions traditionally treated with opioids. The plan, which is on the governor’s desk, is meant to address a growing opioid crisis in the state: 11,000 people have died from opioid-related overdoses since 2008, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. In 2016, opioid deaths were nearly double the number of fatal car crashes.

“This is a compassionate and commonsense approach to dealing with something we universally acknowledge is a problem,” said Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat who championed the legislation in the House. “Opioid addiction is ravaging communities.”

Cassidy added that the program is aimed at preventing more Illinoisans from becoming addicted to opioids by instead offering an alternative, “non-addictive treatment” for short-term conditions.

If implemented, the program would be unique, according to national cannabis experts, and would expand Illinois’ anemic medical marijuana market 10 times over.

Kris Krane, former associate director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that the program would “put a real dent in the opioid crisis,” and could bring in badly needed revenue to a state drowning in billions of dollars of debt.

“There would be tremendous benefit to the state from an expansion in terms of jobs and the taxes that comes along with an industry expanding by more than 10 times the current size,” said Krane, who is president of 4Front, a medical cannabis consultant company that also operates marijuana dispensaries in multiple states.

The plan also eliminates some barriers to access of the state’s restrictive medical marijuana program. It would remove requirements that patients undergo background checks and fingerprint scans, which critics argue disproportionately prevents lower-income and minority communities from obtaining the drug.

“Drug law enforcement takes place more vigorously in lower income communities and communities of color,” Krane said, adding that those who would benefit from medical cannabis often can’t access it if they have prior convictions. Many of those convictions, he said, are for marijuana possession.

While the plan was overwhelmingly bipartisan, it may run into trouble with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has resisted expanded access to medical marijuana and enacted the restrictive program back in 2015. The governor’s spokeswoman, Rachel Bold, did not immediately reject the idea when it passed the Senate in April, saying that Rauner is looking at “any and all possible solutions” to the opioid crisis.

That answer came only two months after the Rauner administration decided to appeal a circuit court decision ordering the state to expand access to the drug for those diagnosed with chronic pain, a condition commonly treated with opioids.

The proposed program is expected to give those with chronic pain access to medical marijuana at least temporarily, which could prove a workaround to the governor’s court fight.

For Sen. Don Harmon, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, the state needs every tool available to fight a growing public health crisis.

“Opioid addiction takes the lives of thousands of Illinoisans every year,” said the Oak Park Democrat. “We should be open to any reasonable alternative treatment — and no one has ever died of a cannabis overdose.”