Illinois rolls out medical marijuana program alternative to address opioid crisis
By Meg Ellis
Feb 06, 2019
In 2018, Illinois enacted changes to the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, creating the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program. The OAPP went into effect on Friday, February 1.
Under the new OAPP, patients that hold prescriptions for opioid-based medication may purchase medical cannabis from a licensed dispensary instead of opioids.
According to the press release from the Illinois Department of Public Health announcing the launch of the OAPP, the program was “Designed to provide people with an option to manage their pain. Opioids can be highly addictive in a very short period of time and this program offers qualifying individuals an alternative.”
Data from the IDPH showed that the state saw a 13 percent increase in opioid-related deaths between 2016 and 2017. The Illinois state legislature adopted the OAPP in the hopes of reducing opioid deaths.
How does the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program work?
Under the OAPP, patients may purchase medical cannabis with a prescription from a doctor at a licensed dispensary instead of taking opioid-based medicines such as Codeine, Dilaudid, Fentanyl, and Morphine.
The OAPP has participation requirements from both physicians and patients.
Patients in the Prairie State interested in swapping their opioid-based medications for marijuana must first see their licensed physician for a pot-prescription. Their physician must then complete a state certification program using the Illinois Cannabis Tracking System.
After ensuring that their physician is certified to prescribe marijuana, patients may create a user account to register online at a licensed medical cannabis dispensary or a local health department.
To register, patients need their physician’s certification, a “passport-like” photograph of themselves, a copy of their driver’s license or state identification card, proof of residency in Illinois, and $10 for state fees.
Once all of this information is uploaded and the fee is submitted to the Illinois Cannabis Tracking System, the patient will then receive an electronic medical cannabis registry card. The patient must then present the eRegistry card at the medical marijuana dispensary within the same day.
OAPP registration is valid for 90 days. If the physician and the patient agree that they should continue with the medical marijuana treatment and forego opioid-based medication, a new registration can be submitted for another 90 days.
How is the OAPP different than the state’s medical marijuana program?
In 2013, Illinois enacted the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act. The MCPP allows people suffering from qualifying debilitating medical conditions to register with the IDPH to obtain marijuana for medical purposes.
No patient can be enrolled in both the OAPP and the MCPP at the same time. The purpose of the OAPP is to help patients interested in seeking an alternative to prescribed opioid-based medicines, whereas MCPP participants have pre-qualifying conditions which require them to take marijuana for medicinal purposes. MCPP patients cannot have opioid-based medication to qualify for the MCPP.
If any patient registered in the OAPP wishes to participate in the traditional MCPP, their OAPP registration will terminate once the patient has applied for the MCPP.
But aren’t they just switching one drug for another?
The American Medical Association published two studies in 2018 which found that allowing people to access medical marijuana legally helped patients reduce their reliance on opioids.
Researchers from the University of Georgia, Athens found that states that had medical cannabis laws saw a significant reduction in opioid prescriptions.
The second study, completed by scientists from the University of Kentucky and Emory University stated that “Marijuana is one of the potential nonopioid alternatives that can relieve pain at a relatively lower risk of addiction and virtually no risk of overdose.”
The latter report found that laws allowing for medical and recreational cannabis use could lower opioid prescriptions for Medicaid enrollees and opioid use disorder.
The researchers from Kentucky and Emory concluded that “Marijuana liberalization may serve as a component of a comprehensive package to tackle the opioid epidemic.”
State officials are applauding the OAPP in its attempts to move people onto a nonopioid alternative that can still relief pain.
“Nobody has ever overdosed on cannabis,” Illinois State Sen. Don Harmon told The Growth Op. “As a policymaker that’s a chance I’m willing to take if we can substitute a more benign medicine for a much more severe one.”
Hopefully, with the OAPP fully operational, Illinois will see a reduction in the number of opioid prescriptions and opioid-related overdoses.