On May 31, Illinois policymakers passed the Alternatives to Opioids Act, allowing millions of people with opioid painkiller prescriptions to join the state’s medical marijuana program. This adds Illinois to a growing list of states aiming to employ medical marijuana in place of opioids, a move to lower painkiller dependency and addiction. But, though the bill has been met with the support of Republicans and Democrats alike, it’s not yet clear if Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who opposed the legalization of medical marijuana in the past, will sign it.
If it earns Gov. Rauner’s signature, Illinois will join the ranks with Georgia, which recently allowed doctors to treat PTSD and intractable pain with medical marijuana prescription, and New York, which gave doctors the right to prescribe medical cannabis oil as an alternative to opioids.
Illinois’ proposed Alternatives to Opioids Act would give anyone with a condition that would normally involve opioid prescriptions access to medical marijuana at licensed dispensaries if they are older than twenty-one. They would be granted nearly immediate access to cannabis products, given that they have the right paperwork from their doctors, exempting them from fingerprinting, criminal background checks, and lengthy approval periods.
The bill could increase the number of people in the state’s medical marijuana program, seeing that over two million people were prescribed opioids in 2017. Policymakers hope that the new bill would deter would-be opioid users from becoming dependent or addicted, and it may give patients already prescribed opioids a safer alternative to consider using.
This bill comes during an opioid crisis. Over 13,000 people in Illinois overdosed on opioids in 2017, and 2,000 of these were lethal. Policymakers and marijuana advocates are confident that the Alternatives to Opioids Act could save a lot of lives.
But there are serious concerns about the bill as well. Some people wonder if it’s a good idea to replace one addictive substance with another, especially based on the rather narrow amount of scientific research supporting marijuana’s ability to sufficiently treat chronic pain. Then again, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control found that there isn’t much evidence that opioids are an effective treatment for chronic pain either.
Moreover, it’s unlikely that marijuana dispensary staff are sufficiently trained to recommend the safest type of products to patients. This is especially relevant in light of a recent study concluding that 70% of the Coloradan “budtenders” sampled would recommend cannabis consumption to first-trimester pregnant mothers to treat morning sickness.
Many researchers lament that policies are moving too far ahead of science. But some health providers are more than ready to administer cannabis over opioids—they see it as a matter of damage control; it’s estimated that one-in-four people who are prescribed opioids become addicted, and with overdose and death rates on the rise, they question just how therapeutic opioid prescriptions really are.