On August 28, Governor Bruce Rauner signed legislation to expand his state’s medical marijuana program. One goal of the new law is to make medical marijuana available as a replacement for opioids.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reports that in 2016, “opioid-related overdoses claimed the lives of 1,946 Illinoisans, more than one and a half times the number of homicides and nearly twice the number of fatal car accidents.” Those deaths represent “an 82% increase since 2013.” Prescription opioids include Vicodin, Percocet, and Oxycontin. The department report points out that fatalities have increased even as doctors have reduced the number of prescriptions they write for these drugs. One reason for this is that synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are “disproportionately contributing to the rise in both fatal and nonfatal overdoses.”

See also: New York allows medical marijuana as opioid alternative

The new law allows doctors to prescribe medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for such symptoms as chronic pain. Rauner’s approval of the bill was supported by public health experts, including Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the department, who said “substantial evidence” exists that marijuana is effective at managing long-term pain. Patients who have found relief from opioid addiction through medical marijuana also applauded the governor’s signature.

Along with a loosening of the restrictions on eligible patients, the new law also allows for a shorter application process. In Illinois, medical marijuana patients had to be fingerprinted. That will no longer be required, and provisional licenses will be granted on application. In addition, the new law proposes an updated computer network between the state and dispensaries that will better serve patients. The new law also extends licensing periods so that patients do not have to renew as often.

The department reports that it “has approved applications for approximately, 44,207 qualifying patients (including 315 persons under 18 years of age), since it began accepting applications for the Medical Cannabis Registry Program on September 2, 2014.” The state has 55 licensed medical cannabis dispensaries, which did $85 million in business in 2018.

Marijuana is helping people quit opioids

A recently published study in the Journal of Harm Reduction concludes: “The growing body of research supporting the medical use of cannabis as an adjunct or substitute for opioids creates an evidence-based rationale for governments, health care providers, and academic researchers to consider the implementation and assessment of cannabis-based interventions in the opioid crisis.” The study also cites “a growing amount of evidence” easing access to medical marijuana “has significant positive impacts on public health and safety, largely as a result of substitution effect.” When people are able to exchange a dangerous drug for a safer one and still get the desired result, they often do just that.

Another study offers evidence of this behavior among migrane sufferers, many of whom reported switching from opioids to marijuana if it relieved their symptoms. The study group’s favorite strain: “OG Shark,” with hybrid strains in general getting the most favorable results.

Among the strains of opioids, Vicodin is made by AbbVie, Inc., a company based in Chicago that reported “worldwide net revenues” of  “$7.934 billion in the first quarter” of 2018. OxyContin is made by Purdue Pharma L.P., which also makes codeine and fentanyl. In 2007, the Illinois attorney general, along with many other attorneys general, reached a settlement with Purdue in which the manufacturer agreed to “significantly alter and restrict its practices in promoting the drug, OxyContin, and to pay $19.5 million to the states involved.” As recently as 2017, the company was sued by a municipality for not adhering to the 2007 agreement to alter its sales practices. And on September 6, the attorney general of Colorado filed a lawsuit against Purdue, “alleging that the companies’ fraudulent and deceptive marketing of prescription opioids played a significant role in causing the opioid epidemic” in that state.

What do you think? Will loosening medical marijuana rules help people in Illinois get off opioids? Leave a comment below.

About the Author: Eric Howard

Eric Howard, who lives in Los Angeles, is a staff writer for Marijuana and the Law. His most recent book, Taliban Beach Party, appeared in 2017.

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