The unique power of cannabis to treat otherwise intractable forms of childhood epilepsy has been one of the main drivers of medical marijuana legalization across the globe, but physicians have also been discovering that cannabis can also be a highly effective treatment for chronic pain.
This week, both Illinois and Connecticut expanded their medical cannabis programs to allow patients suffering from chronic pain to explore a safer alternative to addictive opioid medications. On Tuesday, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a new law allowing individuals who are using opioids to switch to cannabis-based medicines. On the same day, Connecticut approved the addition of eight new qualifying conditions for the state's medical marijuana program, most of which are pain-related.
Illinois' new law, passed by state legislators this June, allows anyone that has a prescription for opioids, or has a condition that opioids would normally be prescribed for, to register with the state’s medical marijuana program. The new law is a reaction to the serious opioid crisis currently gripping Illinois and elsewhere, as well as a response to growing medical evidence that cannabis can provide a safe alternative to these addictive drugs.
“We’ve got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic,” Gov. Rauner said at the bill signing. “We are creating an alternative to opioid addiction…It’s clear that medical marijuana treats pain effectively, and is less addictive and disruptive than opioids.” Last year, a research study found that two-thirds of patients enrolled in Illinois' medical marijuana program were able to cease their use of opioids. This study dovetails with a growing body of research indicating lower rates of opioid addiction and abuse in states where medical cannabis is legal.
Illinois currently has around 42,000 patients registered in its medical marijuana program, but over 2 million patients received opioid prescriptions last year, and the new law allows all of these patients to enroll in the program if thy choose. Fortunately, the new provision also removes a number of restrictions that made it difficult for patients to register with the state's program. Patients will no longer have to be fingerprinted and undergo background checks in order to be approved, and individuals with felony convictions will no longer be denied access to medical marijuana. Over 600 people were denied due to felonies last year.
“Now those suffering from pain can opt for medical marijuana — which has zero deaths related to overdose — over opioids,” said Ben Kovler, the Jim Beam heir who ditched the alcohol industry to become a legal weed entrepreneur, to the Chicago Tribune. “Numerous studies show that marijuana is effective at treating pain and we are thrilled the people of Illinois will now have that choice.”
Although the bill was signed into law this week, the state will not be able to fully implement the new regulations until December 1st. Patients with opioid prescriptions will be given access to a 90-day supply of medical cannabis, but state regulators are planning to enact regulations that will prevent them from stockpiling more than their share of legal weed during this time frame. Doctors reserve the right to renew patients' 90-day supplies, however.
Meanwhile, while the latest expansion of Connecticut's medical marijuana program does not specifically allow opioids to be replaced with marijuana, it does allow patients suffering from a number of pain-related illnesses to legally use pot. Six of the new conditions — fibromyalgia-related spasticity, severe arthritis, post-herpetic neuralgia pain, neuropathic facial pain, and two headache-related conditions — can only be invoked by adults as reasons for needing medical cannabis. The other two — muscular dystrophy and osteogenesis imperfecta — can be treated with medical marijuana by approved minors as well as adults.
The eight conditions were approved by the Connecticut Legislature's Regulations Review Committee this week, and will be submitted to the Secretary of the State's office for final approval. The expansions will be fully legal within a week after said approval, and patients suffering from these conditions can apply immediately thereafter.
“Now that these regulations have been accepted, more patients with severe medical conditions will have access to medical marijuana as a treatment option,” Consumer Protection Commissioner Michelle H. Seagull said in a statement reported by the Connecticut Mirror. “I want to thank our Board of Physicians and the committee for their thoughtful consideration of these conditions. I continue to be proud of the careful way that our program has expanded, and its commitment to a true medical model.”