CHICAGO — Illinois lawmakers have approved a measure not only to allow medical marijuana to be used in place of prescription painkillers, but to eliminate requirements for patients to get fingerprints and criminal background checks.
The change would allow all new applicants to buy medical marijuana from licensed dispensaries based on their doctors' orders, rather than having to wait up to four months for bureaucratic approval. Patients could no longer be denied based on criminal convictions.
Gov. Bruce Rauner faces a decision over whether to sign the bill into law. Rauner has opposed most expansion of medical marijuana, and could not be reached for comment, but there are some indications he may change his mind in this case.
The original sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park, said he was impressed by testimony at hearings in Springfield from patients who had used marijuana to reduce or eliminate use of opioids like Vicodin.
While science is not settled on the efficacy of using cannabis in place of narcotics, Harmon said, "The only two things I know for certain is, opioids kill people, and marijuana does not."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly half a million people in the U.S. died of opioid-related overdoses between 2000 and 2014. In Illinois, opioid overdoses have been linked to more than 11,000 fatalities since 2008. But the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports no deaths from an overdose of marijuana.
The fingerprints and background checks have long been the most common complaint about the state's medical cannabis pilot program, which began sales in 2015 and is scheduled to expire in mid-2020.
The change could allow a dramatic expansion of medical marijuana use in Illinois. There are only about 37,000 licensed users now, compared with 8 million opioid prescriptions filled in the state in 2015.
Illinois Department of Public Health officials supported the end of the background check, Harmon said, recognizing that it was a bottleneck causing backups of patient approvals. The cooperation from state officials in the Rauner administration suggests he may be more open to the changes, Harmon said.
Rauner opposes a separate bill to legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana. Facing an election for governor in November in which Democratic opponent J.B. Pritzker favors legalized pot, expansion of medical marijuana represents a potential political middle ground. Pritzker also was not available for immediate comment.
Despite laws that have legalizing pot in many states, it remains illegal under federal law. Studies have shown that states that legalized medical marijuana had doctors issue fewer prescriptions for opioids, and had fewer deaths from opioid overdose. But one study of surveys from 2005 and before found that cannabis users appeared to have a higher risk of abusing opioids.
In general, the National Academies of Sciences has reported that there is substantial evidence indicating that marijuana is effective in treating chronic pain, nausea from chemotherapy, and muscle spasticity from multiple sclerosis. The Food and Drug Administration remains skeptical, and has approved synthetic versions of THC, the component that gets users high, but have not approved the plant as medicine.
The Illinois General Assembly also approved a measure allowing the state to license the cultivation and processing of industrial hemp, defined as the cannabis sativa plant with less than .3 percent THC. The material does not get users high, but can be used in the production of textiles and other materials. That measure also goes to the governor's desk.