CARBONDALE — The Illinois Senate has passed a bill aimed at providing alternatives to opioid prescription.
Senate Bill 336 allows any condition for which opioids could be prescribed to the list of qualifying conditions for the state’s medical cannabis program. Basically, this means individuals who might otherwise take an opioid would be eligible to use medical marijuana.
The legislation creates a pilot program that allows patients to take a physician certification to a dispensary to receive medical cannabis. Patients can participate in the program and use medical cannabis to help them transition off their initial opioid prescription, or to treat their pain without ever using opioids, according to a news release from the bill’s sponsor, Don Harmon, D-Oak Park.
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“We know that medical cannabis is a safe alternative treatment for the same conditions for which opioids are prescribed,” Harmon said. “This legislation aims to stop dependence before it begins by providing an immediate alternative.”
Dispensaries would be required to verify the physician certification and dispense medical cannabis in set amounts based on the recommended duration of the opioid prescription. The patient would be given an endorsement card indicating that they are in lawful possession of medical cannabis.
The bill was passed by a 44-6 vote and is currently in the rules committee in the Illinois House.
Both Southern Illinois senators Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, and Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, voted in favor of the measure.
Fowler said the legislation is in response to the growing opioid crisis in the state, which has cost the lives of over 10,000 Illinoisans in the past decade alone.
“By supporting the implementation of a pilot program, lawmakers are seeking realistic solutions to a very concerning public health crisis while also ensuring that we are providing medical relief to patients who are in pain and suffering,” Fowler said. “Moving forward, we should continue to seek out ways to address the escalating epidemic we are seeing with opioid usage across the nation, acknowledging that there may be other avenues to explore that help patients deal with their pain and also recognize that opioids may not be the best or only path forward.”
Schimpf called the bill a common sense step in addressing the opioid epidemic.
“It allows doctors to act on a determination that medical marijuana represents a better treatment alternative for their patient than opioids,” he said. “I hope this passes the House and is signed by Gov. Rauner."
Illinois officials have recently rolled out a statewide effort to fight opioid abuse. In December, the Opioid Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force established an all-hours helpline to provide assistance to those impacted by pain-killer addiction.
According to the most recent data, yearly opioid overdose deaths in Illinois are nearing the 2,000 mark. Task force leaders say they aim to "combat further drug overdose tragedies."
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Dr. Jeff Ripperda, a family medicine doctor in Murphysboro, said there has been some research indicating that opening access to marijuana does drop the number of opiates prescribed for any given area. However, he says he doesn’t believe it can be concretely said that cannabis is an effective medication, making access to it easier does seem to reduce the number of opiates prescribed.
Additionally, Ripperda said about 10 percent of the people who use marijuana meet the criteria for addiction to it.
“We also know that expanding access expands usage, so expanding access to marijuana will likely increase the number of people addicted to marijuana,” he said. “I know that marijuana overdoses are exceedingly rare, but a marijuana addict who sits in his basement doing nothing all day except smoking and thinking about where his next bit of cannabis is coming from isn't exactly a productive member of society.”
Overall, Ripperda said he doesn’t have a strong opinion on the proposed bill, adding he sees benefits and drawbacks.
“I don't like the implication that medical cannabis is a definitively valid treatment for any condition,” he said. “I do like that opening access to cannabis decreases the number of opiates used. I'm a little disappointed that lawmakers aren't approaching the topic with a little more nuance, but I'm frequently disappointed in this regard.”
He said a slight change that would put him on board with the legislation is that if those who received a medical marijuana card were not permitted to get opiate prescriptions starting medical cannabis.
“The idea of cannabis as medicine has some strong counter arguments —scientific, legal, and philosophical — but opioid use in America is currently the bigger problem,” Ripperda said. “The inability to be perfect should not preclude the ability to be better.”