EFFINGHAM — People working in the medical cannabis industry think they can help thousands more people in Illinois with a new law signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in late August.

Senate Bill 336 was made into a law that will allow those who might otherwise seek opioids for pain management would be eligible to use medical marijuana, using the Illinois Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program, in place until July 1, 2020.

The new law called "Alternatives to Opioids Act of 2018," puts in place a pilot program that will not compromise patient safety or diminish medical marijuana program standards, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

There were 1,826 opioid-related overdose deaths in Illinois in 2016, a 70 percent increase over 2013. Soon those suffering from pain can opt for medical marijuana — which has zero deaths related to overdose — over opioids, said Founder and CEO Ben Kovler of Green Thumb, which is an owner of The Clinic Effingham cannabis dispensary.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reports opioid deaths in Illinois increased 13 percent from 2016 to 2017. Meanwhile, the Journal of the American Medical Association has reported that states with medical marijuana dispensaries have seen a 14.4 percent decrease in the use of prescription opioids.

Josh Ratliff, manager of The Clinic Effingham, said it isn't uncommon to see patients come into the dispensary who are being prescribed oxycontin, Vicodin, morphine and Fentanyl.

"We get 50-70 new patients in here each month," said Ratliff. "With the new opioid bill passing, I'd expect that number to climb."

The Effingham dispensary has 900 patients to date. The main reason people try medical cannabis is to control pain, Ratliff said. The three top medical reasons by these patients are fibromyalgia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and cancer related ailments.

So, soon, once all the state regulations are in place with the new law, patients can try an alternative for pain-management by using cannabis available in various forms: flowers, oils, concentrates, topical ointments, edibles, and other options.

The state will put a system in place so that patients can opt for medical marijuana in lieu of opioids, sometime by the end of 2018.

"This bill is is huge," said Ratliff. "It is literally the equivalent of passing chronic pain."

The medical marijuana program in place involves being approved through the IDPH after they have a bona fide patient-doctor relationship that certifies the patient has one of the 40 qualifying conditions.

"Opioids can be highly addictive in a very short period of time," said IDPH Director Dr. Nirav D. Shah, in a release. "Because the number of opioid deaths continues to rise in Illinois, although at a much slower pace, we understand a person's hesitancy in filling an opioid prescription. The Opioid Alternative Pilot Program will offer people another option in managing pain."

And the founder of a program that provides alternative medications for ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis, epilepsy, phantom limb pain, sleep apnea, osteoporosis and plenty more, said adding the alternative for opioids is a step in the right direction.

"This is a major step in tackling the state's opioid epidemic," said Kovler. "We applaud Sen. Don Harmon's efforts in sponsoring this crucial bill that will save lives."

Kovler said GTI has four dispensaries in Illinois, including Effingham, Mundelein, Naperville, and Joliet. Participants must register at a licensed dispensary. The program is limited to individuals 21 and older. Dispensations are limited to 2.5 ounces every 14 days and cannot exceed 90 days per physician certification.

"Numerous studies show that marijuana is effective at treating pain and we are thrilled the people of Illinois will now have that choice," said Kovler. "GTI and its dispensaries including The Clinic Effingham expect an uptick in patients due to this law being enacted -- and we look forward to serving them and relieving their pain."

Kovler added that in 2015, there were 8 million opioid prescriptions were filled in Illinois.

"With the dangers of opioids gaining national attention, we expect many of those patients will choose medical cannabis instead of opioids," said Kovler.


13 Illinois laws to know for 2018