Illinois House Plans To Use Medical Marijuana To Stop Opioid Crisis

Illinois has one of the nation's most restrictive medical marijuana programs. This week, lawmakers voted to expand it.

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Illinois lawmakers are close to passing legislation that would give patients who qualify for opioid prescriptions access to medical marijuana, instead. This is part of a larger effort to stem the opioid crisis, which has hit Illinois particularly hard. Here’s a look at the latest legislative push to give Illinoisans better access to marijuana.

Illinois’ Restrictive Medical Marijuana Program

Medical marijuana is hard to get in Illinois. Conditions like chronic pain don’t qualify for it, and most conditions that do are fatal. Illinois Representative Kelly Cassidy is sponsoring this latest marijuana legislation. Her chief of staff, John Pearl, explained to us how difficult this process can be.

“In Illinois, we have probably the nation’s most restrictive medical cannabis list of qualifying conditions . Even for people with life-ending or life-threatening conditions who do qualify , it takes months to get the card, requires background checks, fingerprinting … we make this very difficult for people.”

Marijuana Can Stem the Opioid Crisis

Legalizing marijuana in any form curbs the opioid epidemic. New research shows that states with a medical marijuana program have a 6 percent lower opioid prescription rate than those without one. Places that have legalized recreational weed had a 12 percent lower opioid prescription rate.

This proves that medical marijuana can be an effective substitute for addictive painkillers. Additionally, this research suggests medical marijuana programs can be too restrictive, as they are in Illinois.

Hefei Wen from the University of Kentucky, who co-wrote these studies, responded, “That suggests the medical marijuana laws didn’t reach some people who could benefit from using marijuana instead of opioids.”

Expanding Who Qualifies For Medical Marijuana

Pro-marijuana legislators have had difficulty expanding the list of qualifying conditions. Governor Bruce Rauner is anti-legalization, of any kind. “We have a governor, governor Rauner, who’s been very resistant to adding things like chronic pain,” said Pearl.

Bill SB0336 would allow anyone given a prescription for opioids to take that same prescription to a marijuana dispensary. You’d be allowed to take medical marijuana for as long as you could have taken the opiates. This could mean taking medical marijuana for a week after going to the dentist or taking it as pain medication for a lifelong condition.

This legislation would give people more medical options. Pearl explains, “A lot of people we’ve talked to say ‘I’m in serious pain but I just decided that I’m not ever even going to take opiates. I’m just going to suffer’.” Fewer people taking opiates in the first places means less addiction overall.

Recreational Weed Could Also Be Coming

The House executive committee voted 8 to 3 in favor of this bill. Though there are only a few days left in this session, the bill could come to a vote as early as next week.

Kelly Cassidy’s office has big plans for medical and recreational marijuana. After giving people prescribed opioids access to marijuana instead, Cassidy will focus her attention on recreational weed. Despite the governor’s resistance, many are hopeful that legalization will come to a vote this fall.

" Burgess Powell : Burgess Powell is a writer for Green Rush Daily based in New York. She writes about marijuana news, culture, and health.."