To combat the growing national opioid crisis, Illinois legislators approved the Alternative to Opioids Act (SB 336) in June, allowing medical cannabis to be used in place of prescription painkillers. For the bill to become law, one final hurdle remains – Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature.
If passed, the bill would allow millions of Illinoisans in pain to receive a temporary medical cannabis card, with the approval from their physician.
“Opioid addiction takes the lives of thousands of Illinoisans every year. We should be open to any reasonable alternative treatment, and no one has ever died of a cannabis overdose,” said lead sponsor of the bill, State Senator Don Harmon.
It’s now been 46 days since SB 336 reached the governor’s desk. An official statement has yet to be made, and with an August 28th deadline looming, the situation remains unclear.
While noise surrounding the bill is quiet on the governor’s end, it did receive a strong amount of support from both sides of the political spectrum, passing 72-38 in the House, and 44-6 in the Senate.
Opioid prescriptions and deaths on the rise
In Illinois, 5,307,583 opioid-based prescriptions were filled in 2017, with the average patients supply lasting 90 days. This is eye-grabbing, as experts say it can only take a few days to develop an opioid dependence, with a substantial increase in dependency issues after one month of opioid-based medication.
In Illinois, millions are fighting chronic pain using prescription opioids, and overdose death rates are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Illinois saw a statistically significant increase in prescription opioid overdose death rate, increasing 37% from 2015 to 2016.
Election year issue
Gov. Rauner currently finds himself battling J.B. Pritkzer in one of the most expensive elections in US history, with cannabis policy as a high profile election year issue. Pritzker has been an outwardly spoken proponent of cannabis, often mentioning the economic opportunities that come with legalization.
“For far too long, our state has waited and watched and missed out on jobs and revenue. As governor, I intend to sign a marijuana legalization bill to advance the causes of criminal justice reform, of consumer safety, and of job creation,” said Pritzker during an advertisement released on 4/20.
Pritzker has also suggested reviewing sentences of people incarcerated for marijuana offenses for commutations, with the greater goal of ending mass incarceration.
Gov. Rauner and cannabis: a delicate dance
The Governor’s stance on marijuana policy is murky; while supporting certain legislation, he has a storied past of hampering expansion to the Illinois medical cannabis program.
Gov. Rauner recently supported a pro-cannabis bill, signing Ashley’s Law, allowing sick students to take medical cannabis to school. However, the bill received strong support from both sides of the aisle, winning 50-2 in the Senate; had Rauner vetoed, he would have been in the vast minority.
Despite his recent action on Ashley’s Law, Rauner has often been hesitant when it comes to cannabis policy. The Governor played large role in the disbandment of the Illinois Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, dissolving the practical mechanism for Illinoisans to petition the state to add new qualifying conditions to the medical cannabis program.
The former advisory board, comprised of physicians, nurses, and other health experts, often prompted negative press surrounding Rauner’s administration by providing detailed reviews and recommendations to add qualifying conditions to the program, which the governor continually denied.
“We know who was directing the Department of Health to reject these conditions and his name is Bruce Rauner,” said Representative Lou Lang, architect of the advisory board.
It’s now or never – action is looming
Gov. Rauner’s time is running up – the current incumbent has until August 28th to sign the Alternative to Opioids Act into law. The Industrial Hemp Act, which would allow Illinois farmers to cultivate and process hemp and hemp products, is also awaiting a signature.
With an election coming up, the governor cannot afford to remain passive in a year where cannabis has become a main-stream issue.
If Rauner does ultimately veto SB 336, it will be a bold decision, as more Americans are pro-cannabis than ever before; other states, like New York, have already passed progressive canna-policies that act as alternatives to opioids.
Time will tell what action the Governor will take, but expect some action to happen soon.