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On May 31, 2018, Illinois became another state, among many in the United States, that hopes the expansion of medical marijuana may help end the opioid epidemic. The law, called the Alternative to Opioids Act, will expand Illinois’s medical marijuana laws to include those with a prescription to opioids and allow more people to choose marijuana as pain management. Though the bill has bipartisan support, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who has opposed medical cannabis laws in the past, still must sign it.
Illinois, like many other states, has medical marijuana laws that allow certain people access to cannabis in certain forms to help with their illness. In Illinois, there are 41 different conditions eligible for the program. However, the program is currently heavily regulated, requiring fingerprints, background checks, and months of waiting. At this time, there are only 38,000 registered patients in the program. The proposed changes to law would require an acceleration of the process. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, in 2017, more than 2 million people in the state reported having an opioid prescription. These numbers are striking when taken together with data from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stating that 25% of people who take opioids long term struggle with addiction. Senator Don Harmon, who cosponsored this bill, told reporters that the bill would eliminate the role of background checks and allow patients to bring a doctor’s prescription to pick up cannabis. According to Harmon, the bill could be an effective way to end the devastation inflicted by the opioid epidemic. He told the public, “as we see the horrible damage inflicted by opioid use and misuse, it seems like a very low-cost and low-risk alternative.”
The opioid epidemic has taken a toll on Illinois, as it has done on many other states. In 2017 alone, there were over 13,000 reports of opioid overdoses. Of those reports, at least 2,000 were fatal. However, the opioid epidemic is much larger than any one state. According to the CDC, about 63,000 people in the United States overdosed on opioids in 2016 and that number is expected to be higher for 2017. Some policy makers hope that medical marijuana, which has gained political popularity in recent years, might be the solution to the problem. However, researchers warn that the policy is years ahead of the research and that they may be feeding the public inaccurate information. Professor Ziva Cooper, of the Colombia University Medical Centre, researches the impact of marijuana and warns that they do not yet know the role medical cannabis can play in the opioid epidemic and that the drug may not be effective.
Ultimately, the future of the Alternatives to Opioids Act is undecided, but traction in this field has the potential to affect much more than just Illinois. While marijuana legalization is becoming more common across the country, many still have trouble accessing medical cannabis because doctors are reluctant to prescribe it. Additionally, the stigma against marijuana, caused in part by the ineffective war on drugs, prevents some people from seeing cannabis as a safe alternative to opioids. No matter the outcome of the bill’s future, the existence of the Alternative to Opioids Act proves that the United States must take steps to ending the opioid epidemic, and may have to consider alternative forms of medication to do so.