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Pot Topics: Illinois opioid patients may soon have medical cannabis alternative

The Sun-Times curates a weekly round-up of cannabis news. | File Photo

Pot Topics is a weekly collection of cannabis-related news curated by the Chicago Sun-Times. Here’s this week’s top stories:

  • Action expected on Illinois’ Alternatives to Opioids Act
  • California lawmakers back bill to expunge and downgrade past marijuana convictions
  • Florida political candidate claims banking giant closed bank account over her medical marijuana stance
  • Mormon Church takes a stand on Utah’s medical marijuana ballot initiative

Rauner to take action on alternatives to Opioids Act by Tuesday

Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks at the Thompson Center on July 16, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks at the Thompson Center on July 16, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner is expected to take action on a bill that would give opioid patients the option to use medical cannabis to treat their pain.

Rauner’s office said he is currently reviewing the bill and will act on it by Tuesday’s deadline. If the governor vetoes the measure, the Legislature can override the move with a three-fifths vote in both houses.

The bill, dubbed the Alternatives to Opioids Act, would significantly expand the state’s medical cannabis pilot program by giving people who have been prescribed opioids the opportunity to obtain a temporary medical cannabis card.

Under the bill, temporary access could not exceed 90 days, although a doctor could re-certify a patient after that point. The measure would also eliminate requirements for temporary patients to submit to background checks and fingerprinting.

It’s unclear how many new patients the legislation would bring to the state’s medical cannabis program or how much additional revenue would be generated, according to state Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, who co-sponsored the bill alongside state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago.

Bob Morgan, Illinois’ former medical cannabis czar, estimated that the measure would help “tens of thousands of people in Illinois” who would be granted expedited access to a medical cannabis card.

“The Act adds an important new tool for physicians in Illinois — allowing a doctor to issue a medical cannabis certification instead of prescribing highly-addictive opioids,” Morgan added.

Lawmakers from both parties have rallied around the bill as they search for new ways to respond to the mounting toll of the opioid crisis.

In 2016, 1,946 people died in Illinois from opioid overdoses, nearly twice the number of people killed in fatal crashes in the state, according to the most recent data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Overall opioid deaths in Illinois increased 82 percent between 2013 and 2016, according to the IDPH, which attributed the spike to the rise of synthetic painkilers like fentanyl.

“It certainly does seem to have grown out of control,” Harmon told the Sun-Times earlier this year. “I know a lot of people are dying from heroin and opioid overdoses, and I don’t know of anyone who has died from a cannabis overdose.”

California lawmakers vote to expunge, downgrade old weed convictions

An officer cuts open what he believes is a cigarette containing marijuana during a stop in Hammond, Indiana in 2014. | Jim Karczewski/Sun-Times file
An officer cuts open what he believes is a cigarette containing marijuana during a stop in Hammond, Indiana in 2014. | Jim Karczewski/Sun-Times file

State Senators in California voted Wednesday to both wipe out and downgrade marijuana convictions that were handed down before voters in the state approved a ballot initiative to legalize the drug in 2016.

In May, the California State Assembly voted in favor of the bill, which would require the state’s Department of Justice to review past cannabis convictions that could potentially be expunged or downgraded to misdemeanors.

Investigators would then notify county prosecutors, who would have until July 2020 to evaluate specific cases. Under the legislation, more than 218,000 convictions could be expunged or reduced, according to CNN.

Florida candidate claims pro-pot stance led to Wells Fargo closing campaign account

Nikki Fried, Democratic candidate for Florida agriculture commissioner. | Campaign photo
Nikki Fried, Democratic candidate for Florida agriculture commissioner. | Campaign photo

Earlier this week, a candidate for agriculture commissioner in Florida claimed that Wells Fargo shut down her campaign bank account after it learned of her pro-marijuana platform, an assertion the banking giant denies.

Democrat Nikki Fried opened the account with Wells Fargo on June 13, according to a statement from the candidate. About a month later, a representative for Wells Fargo sent Fried an email saying the bank had learned that her platform advocated “for expanded patient access to medical marijuana.”

The email also asked whether Fried’s campaign would receive funds from “lobbyists from the medical marijuana industry,” the statement said.

Fried’s campaign responded on July 17, noting that the candidate previously worked as a lobbyist in the medical marijuana industry, according to her statement.

In an Aug. 3 phone call, a Wells Fargo representative informed a campaign employee that the bank was terminating its relationship with Fried because of her relationship with the medical pot industry, the statement said.

Fried later received a letter from Wells Fargo that formally terminated the relationship, citing the bank’s need to “oversee and manage its risks,” the statement said

Wells Fargo issued a press release Wednesday that rebuffed Fried’s account.

“In recent days, there have been assertions that Wells Fargo elected to close an account in Florida because of our presumed political viewpoint regarding medical marijuana,” the statement said. “That assertion is completely false. The company has no political position on the matter.”

Wells Fargo added that the company must comply with federal pot laws.

“Since federal law prohibits the sale and use of marijuana, national banks like Wells Fargo may not knowingly bank or provide services to marijuana businesses or for related activities,” the statement said.

Mormon Church opposes Utah’s medical marijuana initiative

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has ramped up its opposition to a November ballot initiative that would legalize medical marijuana in Utah.

Craig C. Christensen, the general authority of the Mormon Church, penned an email to followers this week calling the initiative known as Proposition 2 a “serious threat to health and public safety.”

“The Church joins a coalition of medical experts, public officials, and community stakeholders in calling for a safe and compassionate approach to providing medical marijuana to those in need,” Christensen wrote. “The Church does not object to the medicinal use of marijuana, if doctor prescribed, in dosage form, through a licensed pharmacy.”

On Thursday, members of the coalition met on Utah’s Capitol Hill to speak out against the legalization effort, arguing that states with legal pot laws have seen increased drug use among minors, a higher risk of impaired driving and increased emergency room visits.

“The marijuana initiative appearing as Proposition 2 on the ballot this November does not strike the appropriate balance in ensuring safe and reasonable access for patients while also protecting youth and preventing other societal harms,” said Michelle McOmber, CEO of the Utah Medical Association and a member of Drug Safe Utah.

“We do not object to marijuana derivatives being used in medicinal form — so long as appropriate controls and safeguards are in place to ensure vulnerable populations are protected and access is limited to truly medicinal purposes,” McOmber added.

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