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Bill that would offer medical pot as opioid replacement sent to Rauner’s desk

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner | Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Legislation that would give people who have been prescribed painkillers the option to use medical marijuana to treat their pain has been sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk, but it’s unclear whether the Republican will sign it.

Senate Bill 336, dubbed the Alternatives to Opioids Act, was fully approved last month by the state legislature. The measure, which was sent to Rauner’s desk for signage on June 29, would expand the state’s medical cannabis pilot program to give people who have been prescribed opioids the opportunity to obtain a medical marijuana card.

The governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on the bill.

State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, sponsored the legislation after hearing testimony last spring from medical cannabis patients who reported experiencing fewer side effects than they had while taking opioids — and that pot was actually giving them “a pathway out of opioid use.”

Earlier this year, Harmon claimed the state’s medical cannabis pilot program has “worked well” despite being hampered by Rauner’s “overly cautious” administration, which rejected many proposals the now-defunct Medical Cannabis Advisory Board offered to add new conditions.

State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, and members of the board have said the group was dissolved in a deal with Rauner to extend the state’s medical pot program for three years, according to Chicago Magazine.

Despite Rauner’s resistance to expanding the state’s medical marijuana program, proponents believe Harmon’s bill could help curb the scourge of opioid addiction — a national health crisis that has grown increasingly difficult to manage. Last year, 2,109 people in Illinois died of opioid overdoses, a 49 percent increase from 2013.

“Opioid addiction takes the lives of thousands of Illinoisans every year,” Harmon said in May. “We should be open to any reasonable alternative treatment – and no one has ever died of a cannabis overdose.”

New research appears to show that the use of medical cannabis can result in lower rates of opioid prescriptions.

States with legal medical cannabis programs, including Illinois, had more than 2 million fewer daily doses of opioids prescribed each year under Medicare Part D than in states that hadn’t enacted similar laws, according to a pair of studies published by the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in April.

The studies also found that prescriptions for all opioids dipped by 3.7 million daily doses per year when medical cannabis dispensaries opened.