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Rauner OKs medical marijuana to replace opioids, passes on recreational pot

Gov. Bruce Rauner hands a pen to Melissa Hallbeck, co-founder of MIDWEST Cannabis Education conference.

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Tuesday signed a landmark bill to allow patients access to medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids, but the Republican governor — who’s in a battle for his political future — said he still opposes legalizing pot for recreational uses.

The signing marks an important legal expansion of medical marijuana in the state and also a big notch in Rauner’s battle against the opioid epidemic, which has become a focal point of his re-election campaign.

An estimated 2,000 people in Illinois died from opioid overdoses in 2016. And the Illinois Department of Public Health has said deaths increased 13 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“Opioid abuse disorder is taking the lives of Illinoisans, thousands of lives. Opioid abuse disorder is disrupting and destroying families across our state and across the country,” Rauner said at the bill signing at the Chicago Recovery Alliance on the West Side. “We’ve got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic, and today, I’m proud to sign a bill that helps us stop this epidemic.”

“Medical cannabis creates an opportunity to treat pain in a less intrusive, less obstructive way than opioids,” Rauner said.

Rauner signed the Alternatives to Opioids Act, which will include in the covered “debilitating medical conditions” any in which opioids have been or could be prescribed by a doctor. Physicians will have to certify on a form that the patient is taking or could have been prescribed an opioid.

The move marks somewhat of an about-face for Rauner, who has been reluctant to expand the medical marijuana program. In 2015, Rauner vetoed a measure that would have added other illnesses, such as osteoarthritis and post-traumatic stress disorder, to the list of debilitating diseases under the program. But a Cook County judge in 2016 ordered the state to add PTSD to the list.

So what’s changed? A contentious November election?

Rauner told reporters he’s been studying the issue for months and he “came to a big conclusion.”

“I am very much opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana. But it’s clear from the research, and I prefer to focus on evidence and research results,” Rauner said. “It’s clear that medical cannabis treats pain effectively, and it is less addictive and less disruptive than opioids. Creating that option is an important step forward to improve health quality, and that’s why I signed the bill.”

Rauner also cited “clear evidence” that opioid deaths are reduced in communities where medical cannabis is available to treat pain — with opioid prescriptions cut by almost 15 percent when medical cannabis is available.

Rauner, too, was asked whether he’d be open to adding more conditions to the state’s program.

“It’s clear that medical marijuana treats pain more effectively,” Rauner said. “It’s very possible that there could be more additions in the horizon.”

Standing next to the governor at the news conference was the bill’s Illinois House sponsor, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who said she will introduce new legislation to legalize recreational marijuana “next session.” The Chicago Democrat said she has bipartisan support.

Cassidy and state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, have for years worked on legislation to legalize marijuana in the state. The two would be unlikely to attempt passage until 2019 — when Democrats hope Illinois will see a new governor. Democrat J.B. Pritzker has said he supports the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state.

The state already has a medical marijuana program for patients with 41 debilitating conditions, including AIDS and cancer.

But the new law will also make it easier for those applying for the program by getting rid of a fingerprint and background check requirement. That element is effective immediately, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Nirav Shah said. It will also make it easier for patients to apply online, get a temporary receipt and take that to a dispensary to more quickly obtain medical cannabis while state officials review their request.