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Medical marijuana now an opioid alternative in Illinois thanks to new bill signed by governor

Illinois passed legislation expanding its list of 41 conditions qualifying residents for access to medical marijuana. The bill also removes stringent restrictions which have thwarted participation in the program and resulted in lower-than-expected demand. Another bill passed last week greatly expanded the state’s hemp industry.

Up until now, Illinois had one of the most restrictive medical marijuana programs in the country. The new measure, signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner on Tuesday, could vastly expand the state’s cannabis industry. It makes medical marijuana available as an alternative to highly addictive and potentially deadly opioids. It also eliminates strict requirements for medical marijuana patients such as fingerprinting and criminal background checks.

"This law will give thousands of Illinoisans who struggle with the negative side effects of opioids, including harmful addiction, another choice to manage their pain," the governor said in a statement. "This is not about personal opinions about cannabis. It's about giving people more control over their own health care and pain-relief options."

[Read More: Cannabis taxes continue to burden California’s pot businesses]

The state’s current pilot program is scheduled to expire in 2020. Since it was instituted in November 2015, approximately 42,000 patients have been authorized to purchase the drug, resulting in about $200 million worth of pot sales over the past few years. By contrast, the state of Colorado has sold more than $740 million worth of cannabis in 2018 alone. Illinois has approximately 12 million residents, whereas Colorado has only five million.

According to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, the state added nearly 2,400 patients to its medical marijuana program last month. The new measure is expected to attract tens of thousands of new patients and generate hundreds of millions in additional sales. It allows doctors to authorize the use of medical marijuana for 90 days at a time to patients who have been prescribed opioids such as OxyContin, Percocet or Vicodin.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, six million opioid prescriptions were filled in the state in 2017. Opioids killed almost 2,000 people in the state in 2016. In contrast, there are no known deaths resulting from an overdose of marijuana.

"The opioid crisis is getting worse at an alarming rate," said Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), the bill’s sponsor in a statement. "This law gives people a chance to act quickly and pursue a safe, alternative treatment if they choose. I am thankful for the support I received from both sides of the aisle to the governor for signing this measure into law, and to all of the partners and advocates who helped make it happen."

The new bill was staunchly opposed by the anti-pot group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Contrary to research studies which show a reduction in opioid deaths in states with medical marijuana programs, the group’s president, Kevin Sabet, claims that the measure will lead to more addiction and result in harmful effects on patients’ attention, memory, decision-making and brain development.

J.B. Pritzker/ By Chi Hack Night (YouTube) 

Gov. Rauner’s about-face on cannabis

Many see the signing of the bill as a direct reflection of Gov. Rauner’s re-election strategy. In his campaign to defeat the bill, Sabet pointed out that the governor’s signing of the measure is less a reflection of Rauner’s beliefs on marijuana than a tactic in his campaign to win re-election in November. “From a political perspective, it likely signals he feels pressure from J.B. Pritzker, who has welcomed pot with open arms,” Sabet said.

In the past, Gov. Rauner has been opposed to any expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program and has warned that legalizing marijuana for recreational use would be a mistake. He also recently approved measures requiring insurance companies to cover treatment for opioid addiction.

[Read More: California, others seek to nullify past marijuana convictions]

However, recent polls show challenger J.B. Pritzker, who supports full legalization, is taking a large lead among likely voters. Pritzker has promised to work to legalize recreational marijuana in the state next year.

Illinois medical marijuana industry plans for expansion

As a result of the state’s highly restrictive medical marijuana program, demand for the drug has been low. But now, with the new measure in place and the prospect of recreational legalization, Illinois marijuana growers are scaling up in anticipation of a greatly expanded market.

Cresco Labs, which also has operations in Ohio and Pennsylvania, has plans to expand two of its three facilities in Illinois. Cresco also expanded its workforce in the state from 60 employees in January to more than 140 since the bill was passed by state legislators.

[Read More: Congress continues to fight over legalizing hemp]

Green Thumb Industries also increased its workforce by nearly 50 percent since January. The company now employs more than 160 people. To fund its expansion, GTI raised $67 million via their listing on a Canadian stock exchange in June and an additional $61.6 million in a private financing deal that closed earlier this month.

Paul Rosen, CEO of Tidal Royalty Corp. said his investment firm is partnering with a cannabis company in the state to provide up to $41 million in financing. The funds are earmarked to expand operations and strategic acquisitions. In exchange, Tidal Royalty will receive 15 percent of the company’s top-line revenue. Rosen is also the former CEO of The Cronos Group, the first the first licensed cannabis producer to list on a major U.S. stock exchange.

Gov. Rauner also signs hemp bill into law

In similar news, Gov. Rauner signed a bill legalizing the cultivation of industrial hemp. “Legalizing the farming of industrial hemp just makes good sense,” Rauner said in a statement. “Roughly 38 states — including our neighbors in Wisconsin, Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri and Tennessee — have allowed or are considering allowing cultivation of this crop for commercial, research or pilot programs. Our farmers should have this option as well.”

The Illinois Industrial Hemp Act goes into effect immediately. The state Department of Agriculture is issuing licenses to farmers while regulators establish rules for THC-level testing.

The bill was widely supported by lawmakers and was unanimously passed by the state’s Senate. It passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 106-3.

Advocates applauded the measure saying hemp legalization will create hundreds of jobs and provide up to $100 million in annual revenue for the state.

In a statement by Representative Tim Butler, the bill’s sponsor wrote, “The production of industrial hemp has broad support among our farmers and rural families, as they know this will add another potentially significant crop that can be grown in our state. In the early 20th century, Illinois was a national leader in hemp production and I look forward to us returning to that position.”


*Photo: Staff Sgt. Jodi Martinez

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