By Zack Rusin
Merry Jane

Illinois is actively embracing medical marijuana to curtail the opioid crisis. Could the state’s model be a potential blueprint for the rest of the country?

“When we are dealing with opioids as the single biggest health crisis this state has ever had, you are going to tell me legalizing more drugs is the answer?”

This was the quote offered to the New York Times by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu last fall when asked if cannabis may be a viable option to combat the opioid epidemic currently ravaging the United States.

While Gov. Sununu’s analysis is disheartening for cannabis advocates who see pot as a safe alternative to prescription painkillers, his words are reflective of a larger consensus that refuses to accept the medicinal value of cannabis by instead relegating it to the insidious and stigmatized category of “drugs.”

Some may rightfully distinguish between the concept of drugs as medicine and narcotics as more nefarious substances that offer (often fleeting) pleasure but no recognizable health benefits. However, until this distinction is universally held in the minds of citizens and the press, the commentary of individuals like Gov. Sununu represents a mighty obstacle in the path to widespread acceptance of cannabis as medicine.

Lest anyone wonder whether opioid abuse does indeed represent a domestic crisis, they need only turn to the numbers.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 11.4 million people misused prescription opioids in 2017. In that same year, over 130 people a day died from opioid-related drug overdoses. That’s 47,600 lives lost in 2017 to opioid overdoses (or 70,237 if you included deaths from illegal opioids), and the data from 2018 gives no indication that things are getting better.

Fortunately, not every state leader has opted to conflate opioids and cannabis as two sides of the same illicit coin.

Last October, New York state officials decided to add opioid use disorder to the list of conditions that qualify doctors to prescribe medical marijuana. In Illinois, state Senator Don Harmon decided to take action by sponsoring the Alternatives to Opioids Act last May.

The bill — which Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed into law in late August — allows for state doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for any patient that qualifies for an opioid prescription. Furthermore, it also eliminates some of the barriers of the medical cannabis program in Illinois, like criminal background checks and fingerprinting, to ensure quicker and less prejudiced access to safe pain relief.

Speaking with the Chicago Tribune, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Nirav Shah acknowledged that initiatives like the Alternatives to Opioids Act “frankly just make sense.” The available science on the issue seems to affirm Shah’s conclusion. One of the most widely-cited studies on the subject is a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The authors of that report offered several key findings, including the conclusion that there is “conclusive or substantial evidence” that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for treating chronic pain in adults. Given the number of confirmed deaths from an overdose of cannabis remains at zero (despite some wildly inaccurate claims to the contrary), it thus seems logical to consider cannabis as a vastly preferable alternative to prescribing painkillers.

In February, U.S. senators raised the question of cannabis as an answer to the opioid crisis during a hearing which doctors were called to testify about the latter’s status as a full-blown health epidemic. Several physicians were cautiously optimistic about the role cannabis could play as an alternative to opioids, while others lamented that pot’s federal status was severely hampering research efforts and thus limiting conclusive evidence about the plant’s medical efficacy.

January also saw Illinois put the Alternative to Opioids Act into action. According to Dan Linn, Executive Director for the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the early results have been promising.

“The OAPP has been a success so far,” Linn said in an email interview. “Patients are able to gain immediate access once they submit a complete application to the [Illinois Department of Public Health] and more patients are able to qualify for medical cannabis than ever before in IL.”

While he does note that there have been some issues with educating physicians on the existence of the program, as well as its logistical details, he is notably encouraged by what he’s seen.

“Overall,” Linn says, “the program seems to be very helpful so far since it launched.”