On Wednesday, the Illinois Senate Executive Committee overwhelmingly passed SB336, a bill that would allow people with opioid prescriptions to apply for a medical marijuana card, with only Minority Leader Bill Brady, a Republican from Bloomington, voting no in a 16-1 decisive passing.
If signed into law, SB336 would amend the medical marijuana program to allow those who are prescribed opioids to apply for medical marijuana instead, giving patients the ability to choose medical cannabis, which has consistently shown to be a safer alternative, over the highly addictive and often deadly opioids.
According to the bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park, “Research shows that as the number of opioids prescribed has risen over the past few decades, so has opioid addiction, overdose and death. This is a crisis, and it is rapidly getting worse. Research has also shown that medical cannabis is a safe alternative treatment for the same conditions for which opioids are prescribed.”
At Midwest Compassion Center, a state-licensed medical cannabis dispensary in Romeoville, CEO Nicole van Rensburg is no stranger to the heart-wrenching stories from patients afflicted by opioids: “There was a 21% increase in opioid-related deaths from 2015 to 2016, and data for 2017, still being collected by the Centers for Disease Control, is already showing a 27% increase,” said van Rensburg. Projections as of August 2017 were already well over 64,000 deaths, and not all jurisdictions have reported in.
Of the hardest hit areas, Ohio is near the top of the list, with CNN reporting in August that a morgue in Montgomery County had run out of room with bodies from opioid-related deaths stacked floor to ceiling. “In the state of Ohio, I see between three to five patients a day in the emergency room due to opioid-related overdose or illnesses,” said David Yin, MD, an Emergency Room physician in Cleveland.
The Illinois Medical Cannabis Pilot Program first passed in 2013 defines what medical conditions qualify for medical cannabis therapies and include cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, seizures and several other medical conditions. If SB336 is passed, patients who are prescribed opioids would be able to apply for a medical marijuana card, and because of the opioid crisis and urgent need for intervention, would have the regular background checks and fingerprinting requirements waived for the first year.
As states around the country scramble to implement corrective programs to combat the opioid crisis, the implementation of medical cannabis programs is gaining momentum, fueled by both overwhelming urgency and immense public support. In Illinois alone, studies have shown that participants in the medical marijuana program have reported a 67% decrease in the use of opioids once they were given access to medical cannabis. “I think it’s important to understand we’ve got data now to show that this is working when making this available to people,” said State Senator Heather Steans, a Democrat from Chicago.
According to RJ Starr, Head of Regulatory Affairs for medical cannabis dispensary Bloom Medicinals in Maryland, there is another side that is not getting attention: “With respect to the opioid crisis, it’s time to bifurcate our collective response. On the one hand we need to offer sustainable solutions and urgently get help to people suffering from opioid addiction. On the other hand – and with the same impassioned investigations and action that led to the discovery that big tobacco was manipulating nicotine levels to cause addiction resulting in the deaths of millions – we need a public outcry.”