Pubdate: Thu, 06 Sep 2018
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2018 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Karen Berkowitz



Medical pot sellers in the north suburbs are lauding a new Illinois
law that will eventually allow patients who might be prescribed an
opioid-based painkiller to qualify for medical marijuana as an

The Opioid Alternative Pilot Program has the potential to expand
marijuana access to patients who have been, or could be prescribed
medications such as Oxycontin, Percocet or Vicodin, even if they don't
have one of the medical conditions the state otherwise requires for
eligibility. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the law on Aug. 28.

Local dispensary operators see the law as a major breakthrough in the
Illinois medical marijuana program, which has been growing slowly but
steadily since sales began in late 2015. Unlike some other states that
allow medical use of marijuana, Illinois does not include chronic pain
or intractable pain on its list of qualifying conditions.

"This is a major step in tackling the state's opioid epidemic," said
Ben Kovler, founder and chairman of Green Thumb Industries, which
operates The Clinic Mundelein among its marijuana businesses in
multiple states.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, the state saw
1,946 opioid overdose deaths in 2016. Of drug overdose deaths in 2016,
about 80 percent involved opioids, according to the department.
Prescription opioid overdose deaths in Illinois quadrupled from 344 in
2013 to 1,233 in 2016.

"Now those suffering from pain can opt for medical marijuana, which
has zero deaths related to overdose," Kovler said. "We are thrilled
the people of Illinois will now have that choice."

The Illinois Department of Public Health says it will take some time
before patients can obtain medical marijuana as an opioid alternative
because the state needs to update its computer tracking system. The
new law requires the state health department and other involved
agencies to adopt emergency administrative rules by Dec. 1.

The law is expected to immediately speed up the registration process
for patients with a qualifying medical condition. Patients and
caregivers no longer need to submit fingerprints or consent to a
criminal background check as part of their application to the Illinois
Department of Public Health.

"If you have a felony, you could still get opioids, but you were not
eligible for cannabis, which doesn't seem to make sense," said Andy
Hunt, who owns Elevele in Highland Park with his wife Veronica. "The
background check for cannabis has been removed. We are very grateful
for that."

Once the system is up and running, patients who've been certified by a
physician and have proof they've paid the state's registration fee
will be able to visit a dispensary and obtain medical marijuana while
the state reviews their application. The dispensary also can assist
patients in filing the form.

Dispensary operators report that patients have waited 60 days and
longer for their applications to be approved.

"The big difference is that there is going to be immediate access, as
opposed to a three-to four-month bureaucratic wait that patients have
been experiencing since the inception of the program," said Joseph
Friedman of PDI Medical, a dispensary located in Buffalo Grove. "If
you are in pain and have a condition where medical cannabis can be
helpful, waiting three to four months is not a good thing."

Hunt said patients reaching out in a time of great need have been
forced to wait simply because the state is short-staffed.

He said the decentralized registration system will put more
responsibility on the dispensaries to make sure patient documents are
legitimate. It also poses some inherent challenges for the state that
the updated tracking system is intended to address.

"The main concern for the state is, How do we track patient usage? How
do we make sure patients aren't using more than one dispensary on the
same day?," he said. "How do we track all these new people in the
system and (verify them) if the state is not the sole access point?
Right now, you wait for state approval and you are in."

Still, Hunt and others believe the state's approval of medical
marijuana as an opioid alternative is a significant boost for
businesses and patients. He notes that doctors have long lobbied for
medical marijuana as a way to wean patients off of opioids and slowly
reduce the amount of the narcotic.

"We are excited about the opportunities to help more patients in the
state of Illinois deal with their issues in a much safer and more
effective way," said Mitchell Kahn, chief executive officer of
Greenhouse Group and a Deerfield resident. "We are excited to bring
our medicine to more and more patients and, frankly, to introduce our
dispensaries to more patients."

The firm's four Illinois dispensaries include a Deerfield location
south of Lake Cook Road that won the state's license for Northfield
and New Trier townships.

Patients using medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids will get
a 90-day registration card that can be renewed for 90-day periods with
their doctor's approval.

"Say you just had an accident and broke an arm and need something for
pain," Friedman said. "Cannabis is going to be another tool in the
tool chest for physicians to treat that pain. It doesn't preclude a
patient from getting a narcotic. It is just an additional tool."

The state health department reported Sept. 5 that 25,928 patients had
purchased about $12 million in dry flower, concentrates and infused
products from the state's 55 licensed dispensaries during the month of
August, up from nearly $11 million in June.

The most prevalent medical conditions for which patients sought
medical marijuana, as of mid 2017, were severe fibromyalgia, cancer,
post-traumatic stress disorder and spinal cord disease. Post-traumatic
stress disorder was added as a qualifying condition in 2016.

"As a pharmacist, I am seeing a lot more benefits from medical
cannabis than I am seeing from a lot of the western medications that
people use to treat their symptoms and diseases," Friedman said.

Friedman's PDI Medical and Hunt's Elevele are jointly sponsoring a
Lake County CannaEXPO Sunday, Sept. 9 that will include a session on
medical marijuana as an alternative to prescription opioids. The event
is free and will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 175 East
Hawthorn Parkway in Vernon Hills.
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