People With Opioid Prescriptions Could Get Medical Marijuana Instead Under Illinois Senate Plan

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Patients with a prescription for opioids would temporarily qualify for the state’s medical marijuana program under a bill the Illinois Senate passed Thursday.

Supporters say the idea is to give those in pain alternatives amid the ongoing opioid addiction epidemic. Opponents suggested the bill is an effort to help Illinois’ new medical marijuana dispensaries make money.

Under the proposal, patients would be allowed to take an opioid prescription and a signed doctor’s note into a marijuana dispensary and buy pot instead. The dispensary must verify approval from a doctor and ensure a patient is not already receiving medical marijuana through another means.

Patients then would receive a 12-month temporary card to buy medical marijuana, restricted to the current limit of no more than 2.5 ounces of cannabis during a two-week period. At the end of a year, a patient could apply for a more permanent medical marijuana card should his or her condition persist.

Sponsoring state Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, called opioid addiction “a crisis ravaging the state” and said the bill “keeps people from getting strung out and spiraling down.”

“When people ask me if we are not simply creating a gateway, I tell people this: I don’t know if cannabis is addictive, but I do know this: Opioids and heroin kills people, cannabis does not,” said Harmon, who took at least $8,000 in campaign contributions from medical marijuana interests last year.

Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter, a longtime opponent of marijuana bills, countered that lawmakers were helping medical marijuana dispensaries make profitable businesses by allowing them to widen the number of people who use the drug.

“I just want to make note and remind people that the medical marijuana program was lobbied by people who now own it,” McCarter said.

The Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois, a trade group of pot growers and sellers, praised the decision.

The state currently allows people to buy medical pot if they suffer from one of several qualifying medical conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, and muscular dystrophy. Illinois launched its medical marijuana program on a trial basis in 2013 but has faced numerous hurdles.

The first sales did not happen until November 2015. Initially scheduled to expire in 2020, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner approved a measure to extend the program until 2022 and add terminal illnesses and post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying illnesses.

Earlier this month, the main bank that serves dispensaries told them their accounts would close in May, which could force many businesses to begin dealing in cash.

The opioid-marijuana measure cleared the Senate on a vote of 44-6. It now heads to the House for consideration.