Patients struggling with chronic pain now have the option of replacing their addictive opioid medications with medical marijuana throughout Illinois.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner approved a measure Tuesday expanding access to the state’s medical marijuana program in an effort to curb opioid dependence and abuse. Any patient who previously qualified for prescriptions to opioid medications can be prescribed cannabis by their physician, effective immediately, reported the Chicago Tribune.
Rauner signed the historic legislation, which was approved by the Illinois General Assembly in June, at the offices of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, a group that distributes the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and provides clean needles. (RELATED: CDC Warns Of ‘Dramatic Rise’ In Synthetic Opioid Deaths Over 2017)
“We’ve got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic,” Rauner said at the signing Tuesday, according to the Chicago Tribune. “We are creating an alternative to opioid addiction. … It’s clear that medical marijuana treats pain effectively, and is less addictive and disruptive than opioids.”
In addition to opening up access to marijuana for patients suffering from chronic pain, the bill removes previous rules requiring patients seeking medical marijuana to go through criminal background checks and fingerprinting. Advocates say this will streamline the process, eliminating the current four-month approval process for medical marijuana prescriptions.
The program in Illinois previously listed 40 qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, including cancer and AIDS, serving roughly 27,000 patients. A significantly larger portion of the population will now qualify for medical marijuana.
“This is not about personal opinions about cannabis,” Rauner said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s about giving people more control over their own health care and pain-relief options.”
Advocates of medical marijuana for chronic pain patients argue cannabis can serve as a safe and effective way to treat chronic pain without opioids, drastically reducing the risk for addiction and death from an overdose.
Drug overdoses, fueled predominantly by opioids, are the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing more than 64,000 people in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials say preliminary data shows drug overdoses killed roughly 72,000 people across the U.S. in 2017.
A growing body of research shows marijuana could play a vital role in reducing patients’ dependence on addictive prescription painkillers.
Research published on June 5 in The Journal of Headache and Pain reveals that 73 percent of chronic pain patients with access to medical marijuana substitute their opioid medications with cannabis.
A study published in 2017 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found in states with legal weed hospital visits for complications from prescription painkillers are dropping. The hospitalization rate for opioid abuse and dependence in states with medical marijuana are roughly 23 percent lower than states without legal access.
Emergency room visits for opioid overdoses are on average 13 percent lower than states without medical marijuana programs.
Medical researchers do not claim pot will “solve” the opioid epidemic, but argue marijuana can be an effective alternative to the painkillers that often lead to heroin abuse and death.
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