Gov. Bruce Rauner soon will be asked to weigh in on a bill designed to avoid addiction to prescription painkillers and reduce opioid overdoses by giving certain patients quick but temporary access to the state’s medical marijuana program.
The legislation, which passed with bipartisan support and supermajorities in the Illinois House and Senate, soon will be sent to the Republican governor’s desk, said Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, sponsor of Senate Bill 336.
Medical marijuana may not help every pain patient avoid an opioid addiction that can lead to misuse of legal prescription drugs or illegal drugs such as heroin, Harmon said.
But he said allowing people who have been or could be prescribed an opioid to instead use marijuana is worth a try, based on anecdotal reports and studies that show a reduction in opioid-related fatalities and opioid prescriptions in states that allow the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.
“I’m not saying there’s no need for opioids,” Harmon said last week. “But we’d like to give people an off ramp. People die from opioid overdoses. They don’t die from cannabis overdoses. I’ll take that tradeoff any day.”
If approved, the legislation could increase enrollment in the program — currently serving about 38,000 patients — by eightfold or more, based on estimates.
It’s unclear what Rauner thinks of the bill. A Rauner spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Harmon said Rauner is “not a fan” of the medical marijuana pilot program, which was set in motion under Rauner’s predecessor, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat.
Rauner’s administration is opposing a legal effort to add “intractable pain” to the state’s list of about 40 qualifying conditions for people wanting to enroll in the medical cannabis program.
And Illinois, unlike many states with programs, doesn’t allow patients to legally buy marijuana if they have “chronic pain” but not one of the other qualifying conditions such as cancer, AIDS, fibromyalgia, seizures or spinal cord injuries, Harmon said.
The bill would do more than assist pain patients wanting to take part in what would be called the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program.
It also would drastically reduce waits for other patients to get access to one of the state’s approved cannabis dispensaries after their doctors certify that they have one of the 41 qualifying conditions. Patients are waiting 60 to 120 days for documents to be processed by the state so they can receive program membership cards, Harmon said.
Under the bill, patients for the traditional medical cannabis pilot program would almost immediately receive provisional permits to buy less than 2.5 ounces of cannabis from dispensaries every two weeks for up to 90 days after they submit the required forms and certifications from their doctors.
Applications for longer-term program identification cards would continue to be processed in the interim.
People who have applied to the opioid alternative program and obtained certification of their eligibility from doctors would be able to bring those forms directly to dispensaries and purchase less than 2.5 ounces of cannabis every two weeks for an initial period of up to 90 days, under the legislation. The bill is designed to give these patients access to medical marijuana for as long as they otherwise would be prescribed opioids.
“It’s about getting people the medicine they need as quickly as we can,” Harmon said.
The bill would eliminate the previously required fingerprinting and background checks for applicants — a source of processing delays that proved to be unnecessary, he said.
Because of anecdotal reports of companies potentially taking advantage of patients by charging hundreds of dollars to fill out application forms patients could fill out themselves, the bill would outlaw fees for such services. Violators could be charged with Class C misdemeanors.
The bill also would prohibit doctors from using settings such as hotels, bars and other settings outside medical and office buildings to examine patients and certify that they would qualify for medical marijuana.
Chris Stone, chief executive officer of HCI Alternatives, which operates dispensaries in Springfield and Collinsville, said he feels cautiously optimistic that the legislation will be enacted, either by Rauner signing SB 336 or the General Assembly overriding a gubernatorial veto.
“We should be in a position as a state to figure out how best we can reduce opioid overdoses and deaths,” Stone said.
Opponents of marijuana such as Springfield-based Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, say cannabis is associated with an increased risk of prescription opioid misuse and addiction and may actually contribute to the opioid epidemic.
In the Senate, Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, and Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, were among those voting for SB 336, while opponents included Sam McCann, a Plainview resident who was elected as a Republican.
In the House, those voting “yes” included Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, R-Leland Grove, and Tim Butler, R-Springfield. Those voting “no” included Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, Avery Bourne, R-Raymond, and C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville.