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Patients prescribed opioids can now buy medical marijuana in Illinois

Tashena Altman, one of the first people covered by the Illinois' Opioid Alternative Pilot Program, shows off the medical cannabis products she bought Friday morning at the FloraMedex dispensary in Elmwood Park. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Tashena Altman, one of the first people covered by the Illinois' Opioid Alternative Pilot Program, shows off the medical cannabis products she bought Friday morning at the FloraMedex dispensary in Elmwood Park. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Sales of medical marijuana kicked off last week under a new statewide program offering a new form of relief for patients suffering from conditions that require an opioid prescription.

On Friday morning, Tashena Altman became one of the first patients to purchase cannabis under the new Opioid Alternative Pilot Program, an offshoot of the state’s medical pot program. Altman, of the Beverly neighborhood, was diagnosed at birth with sickle cell anemia and has since been prescribed a list of dangerous opioids, like codeine and Dilaudid.

After applying for the program and obtaining a temporary registration, Altman visited the Elmwood Park dispensary FloraMedex to buy a variety of medical-grade pot products, including a strain of weed named for the stoner comedy Pineapple Express that she showed off during a press conference.

“It’s a smooth process, just like going to the pharmacy to pick up my pain pills,” said Altman, who has been buying black-market weed for the past three years.

Tashena Altman, one of the first people covered by the Illinois’ Opioid Alternative Pilot Program, checks in Friday morning at a medical marijuana dispensary in Elmwood Park. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Altman said the painkillers often left her feeling drowsy, making it difficult to care for her 2-year-old son who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and relies on a ventilator. Altman said she would often have to choose between pain relief and taking care of the young boy.

“I would sit and cry on the side of his bed because I was in so much pain,” Altman told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But I still had to take care of him. I wanted to take the pills, but I know if I took the pills with the pain I was in, I was automatically going to sleep.”

“With the marijuana, I’m able to stay alert,” she said.

The state’s new pilot program was established when former Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the Alternative to Opioids Act into law last August. The landmark legislation sponsored by state Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) looks to address the rising toll of the opioid crisis.

For the first time on record, the odds of dying from an opioid overdose surpassed the odds of dying from a vehicle crash in 2017, according to a recent analysis by the National Safety Council. That year, roughly 68 percent of the country’s 70,200 drug overdose deaths involved an opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We just heard stories about people who got strung out and couldn’t get off of [opioids],” Harmon said during Friday’s press conference at FloraMedex, which is owned by the Illinois pot firm Cresco Labs. “So what we wanted to do was get people an exit ramp from that temporary opioid use and give them a way to manage their pain and their condition going forward.”

“Nobody’s overdosed on cannabis,” Harmon said.

State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, talks about using cannabis as an opioid replacement during a press conference Friday morning at the FloraMedex dispensary in Elmwood Park. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Opioid patients seeking relief under the new program need a doctor to certify their condition, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Once a doctor has entered the certification into the state’s tracking system, a patient can register for the program online, at a dispensary or at a local health department with a $10 fee, passport photo, state-issued ID and proof of Illinois residency.

Patients then receive an electronic medical cannabis card that can be used to purchase pot at any dispensary for 90 days, before a doctor would have to renew the card.

On Thursday, the first day of opioid-related sales, 24 doctors registered for the program and 35 patients began enrolling, public health officials said. Four of those patients completed the process and are now eligible to buy pot from their chosen dispensary, while the others are waiting for certification from a physician.

The opioid replacement law could mark the largest expansion to Illinois’ medical marijuana program. The last major expansion to the program came after a Cook County judge ordered state health officials to add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of conditions that qualify for medical cannabis in 2016.

Since then, PTSD has become the state’s most common qualifying condition and medical pot use has risen dramatically, according to an annual IDPH report issued in September.