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Illinois Republican governor signs bill allowing medical marijuana as alternative to opioids

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed an expansion bill that allows doctors to prescribe medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) signed a bill Tuesday allowing physicians to prescribe medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids, including OxyContin and Vicodin.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic,” Rauner said in a news release. “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 2016, opioid overdoses in the state had increased by 82 percent since 2013, according to the State of Illinois Comprehensive Opioid Data Report released in December.

Illinois' restrictive pilot medical marijuana program has approved the drug for more than 40,000 patients since it first began in November 2015, according to the Chicago Tribune. Patients have spent more than $200 million on pot since its inception.

More than 2 million patients received about 5 million opioid prescriptions last year, according to the Illinois Department of Health, the newspaper reported. That number could include people with multiple prescriptions.

The bill is an expansion of the pilot program that is set to expire in July 2020.

What did supporters say?

Suzanne Carlberg-Racich, director of research for the alliance and assistant professor of public health at DePaul University, told the Tribune that she believes the move is a positive step in fighting the opioid epidemic.

“This is a great step in the right direction,” Carlberg-Racich said. “I’m pleased to see an alternative for pain management that doesn’t have any potential for a fatal overdose.”

Illinois Department of Public Health's Dr. Nirav D. Shah said there's “substantial evidence“ that shows marijuana is an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults.

"And initiatives like this frankly just makes sense,” Shah said at the bill signing, according to the Tribune.

What do opponents say?

The president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Kevin Sabet, warned medical marijuana isn't innocuous.

He said its use could lead to more addiction and more people driving under the influence, as well as more users suffering from the drug's harmful effects on brain development, attention, memory, and more.

“From a scientific perspective, it makes no sense,” Sabet told the Tribune. “The most comprehensive study on the issue was just published in The Lancet and found marijuana didn’t help with pain, nor did it reduce opioid use."

Sabet believes the governor caved to political pressures to sign the bill.

“From a political perspective,” Sabet said. “It likely signals he feels pressure from J.B. Pritzker, who has welcomed pot with open arms.”

Aaron Weiner, director of addiction services for Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville, Illinois, told the newspaper that he believes legislators missed a chance to correct the state's "deeply flawed" medical marijuana program.

Weiner said the effects of high potency extracts, which contain up to 93 percent THC, haven't been studied sufficiently.

Patients can buy as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks, which Weiner said is far more than most patients need, and it's enough to create an addiction to the drug.

What else?

Lawmakers have proposed recreational marijuana legalization next year for adults over 18, which the governor opposes.

Pritzker, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who's trying to unseat Rauner, supports the measure.

One last thing…
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