QUINCY -- Patients prescribed opioid painkillers in Illinois soon will be able to choose medical cannabis as an alternative treatment.
Late last month, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law Senate Bill 336, which establishes the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program. The program allows physicians to temporarily prescribe medical cannabis in situations in which opioids would traditionally be used to treat pain. Illinois' Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act only applies to "debilitating medical conditions," such as cancer and HIV.
"This is definitely a move in the right direction to address the opioid crisis," said Chris Wildrick, Herbal Remedies Dispensary chief operating officer. "We know that cannabis is very effective in treating pain, and it's much safer."
The law cites the 2017 State of Illinois Opioid Action Plan, which described the opioid epidemic as "the most significant public health and public safety crisis facing Illinois" and said "at the current rate, the opioid epidemic will claim the lives of more than 2,700 Illinoisans in 2020."
The Illinois Department of Public Health reported that 11,000 people have died from opioid overdoses since 2008. About 2.3 million patients in Illinois received about 5 million opioid painkiller prescriptions in 2017.
An average of 133 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents were dispensed in Adams County in 2016. Seven residents died from opioid overdoses that year.
Adams County State's Attorney Gary Farha said he sees the use of medical cannabis over opioids as the lesser of two evils in terms of addiction.
"We've experienced a lot of people that have relied on their doctors and, unfortunately, have gotten hooked on opioids," Farha said. "When the doctors take them off, they aren't able to get off. They steal and do a lot of different things to get them, and sometimes, they'll turn to illegal drugs."
The program removes requirements that patients undergo background checks and fingerprint scans -- two measures which immediately went into effect -- which critics argue disproportionately prevents lower-income and minority communities from obtaining the drug.
"You still need a doctor's prescription," Farha said. "I don't see a problem with legitimate, licensed businesses selling cannabis products to people that have been diagnosed with illnesses. I think there are appropriate uses of cannabis."
Under the law, the Illinois Department of Health must now establish the Illinois Cannabis Tracking System, web-based system to which written certifications for Pilot Program participants will be uploaded, participants will be verified, and medical cannabis sales through the program will be tracked. That system won't be established until next year.
Wildrick said it's too early to tell what kind of an impact the pilot program will have locally, but noted that, since Herbal Remedies opened a few years ago, she can "already see in our little dispensary how much it's helping patients here in Quincy."
"There is still a lot of educating that needs to take place," Wildrick said, "but this indicates that someone is being educated. It will be interesting to see what happens in Illinois going forward."
The Associated Press ?contributed to this report.