Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois signed into law the Alternative to Opioids Act on Tuesday, allowing patients in the state who are prescribed opioid medications to opt for medicinal cannabis instead. Rauner signed the bill at the Chicago Recovery Alliance, a nonprofit group that provides addiction services including needle exchange programs and the distribution of naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Under the law, Illinoisans with a doctor’s authorization can receive a temporary identification card to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program. Patients will not be required to have the background and fingerprint checks that are usually required for medical marijuana patients in the state.
The Alternative to Opioids Act is a response to the nationwide epidemic of overdoses from the powerful drugs. Suzanne Carlberg-Racich, the director of research at the Chicago Recovery Alliance, said that new law will provide a safer option for the treatment of pain.
“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.”
Illinois Gov. Rauner is expected to take action on the state’s Alternatives to Opioids Act before Tuesday’s deadline, according to media reports. The pending bill would allow patients who have been prescribed opioids to instead obtain a temporary identification card authorizing them to treat pain with cannabis under the Illinois medical marijuana program.
The temporary identification cards would be valid for ninety days and could be extended by the patient’s physician. Those receiving temporary cards would not have to comply with provisions of the medical marijuana program requiring fingerprint and background checks for patients.
Bob Morgan, the former chief of the state’s medical marijuana program, said that the bill could potentially help tens of thousands of patients avoid using opiates by expediting the issuance of temporary cards.
“The Act adds an important new tool for physicians in Illinois — allowing a doctor to issue a medical cannabis certification instead of prescribing highly addictive opioids,” Morgan said.
The Alternative to Opioids Act was sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Don Harmon and Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy. The bill was passed by the state Senate in April and approved by the Illinois House of Representatives the following month. After both houses concurred to amendments to the measure in May, the bill was sent to Gov. Rauner on June 29.
Opioid Epidemic ‘Out of Control’
The opioid epidemic continues to take lives in Illinois and across the United States. Opioid overdoses caused nearly 2,000 deaths in Illinois in 2016, according to provisional data from the Illinois Department of Health.
“It certainly does seem to have grown out of control,” Harmon told the Chicago Sun-Times after introducing the bill. “I know a lot of people are dying from heroin and opioid overdoses, and I don’t know of anyone who has died from a cannabis overdose.”
Research published in the journal JAMA earlier this year found that states with medical marijuana programs had more than 2 million fewer daily doses of opioids prescribed under Medicare Part D each year. The research also revealed that prescriptions for all opioids dropped by 3.7 million daily doses per year when medical marijuana dispensaries opened.
Medical Marijuana Legalized in 2013
The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act was passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 2013. The law allows patients with one or more qualifying serious medical conditions to register for the program. The Illinois Department of Health has received almost 40,000 applications from patients wishing to register in the program. The department has approved the applications and issued identification cards for more than 34,000 qualified patients.
The act also legalized the cultivation and sale of medical cannabis in the state. To date, 54 medical cannabis dispensaries are operating in Illinois.
Gov. Rauner’s office has said that staff is currently reviewing the Alternatives to Opioids Act and that the governor will act on the bill before Tuesday’s deadline. If he signs the bill it will become law. If he decides to veto the measure, it can still be enacted with a three-fifths vote to override in both houses of the Illinois state legislature.