In June, this blog detailed how the Illinois legislature approved a measure allowing people with Opioid prescriptions to have access to medical cannabis as a substitute. The measure also made it so doctor’s orders would be the basis of a patient’s ability to access medical cannabis, rather than the bureaucratic process of the Department of Health. But maybe most importantly, it also eliminated the time costly criminal background checks and fingerprinting that patients had to submit to. On Tuesday, Robert McCoppin of the Tribune writes that Rauner officially signed the measure into law. The law crucially includes those criminal background check removals and the sidelining of the department of health when it comes to approving patients access. From the article, “We’ve got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic,” the governor said as he signed the bill into law on Chicago’s West Side on Tuesday. “… 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.” As both this blog mentioned in June and McCoppin mentions in his article, Rauner is facing some political pressure from Pritzker(who is for legalization) that undoubtedly was a factor in him making this decision. As a whole Rauner has mainly been against expanding the medical marijuana program and as he said even when signing this measure into law on Tuesday, he is still against legalization. I’ve written a lot about how the Illinois department of health has failed the people it is supposed to serve, mainly because it so so damn restrictive. Illinois is the only state that enforced that criminal background check and it unfairly denied a number of felons the access to a product that now even the governor admits has medical utility. So, all this is good news and a very small forward when it comes to progressive health laws. However, as McCoppin’s article shows, nothing about this is clear cut.
The article delved into the debate over whether or not Medical Cannabis actually is helpful to those with Opioid addictions, and if this measure will be helpful if it is. McCoppin cites a number of opinions on the issue. “Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said research has shown clear evidence that marijuana can be effective for treating pain and can reduce opioid use and opioid overdose deaths. He cited a National Academy of Sciences review that found “substantial evidence“ that marijuana is effective for treating chronic pain in adults. “And initiatives like this frankly just makes sense,” Shah said. As I’ve insulted the department of Health pretty constantly, it would be a bit disingenuous to just take their word. Kevin Sabet, the president of a group called “Smart Approaches to Marijuana” had a much different take. “From a scientific perspective, it makes no sense,” Sabet said. “The most comprehensive study on the issue was just published in The Lancet and found marijuana didn’t help with pain, nor did it reduce opioid use. “From a political perspective,” Sabet added, “it likely signals he feels pressure from J.B. Pritzker, who has welcomed pot with open arms.” It’s important to put into context who Kevin Sabet is and what exactly his groups goal is. Sabet is a former three time White House Office of National Drug Control Policy adviser who was tasked on behalf of the presidents he served with justifying to the public why Marijuana should remain illegal. Now he runs his private non profit group to try and keep legalization from happening in the United States, pointing to numerous studies like the Lancet one he mentioned as proof. It’s important to note that SAM is against criminalization and harsh financial penalties for Marijuana use, and that it claims to be fighting basically against corporate tyranny in the form of big weed companies. While I do think there is something to the critique of what SAM calls “Big Weed” I find the arguments they use as weak and more like deflections to a few pertinent facts. One of those facts being, the people want legalization! If we claim to be a democratic country and the vast majority of people want something, then why should a group like SAM have more sway in policy? Why should the opinions of a person who worked in the damn Whitehouse override the opinions of the majority of the public? I do think that big weed companies are problematic and are more taking advantage of people’s pain for profit rather than actually caring about their well being. But, that doesn’t take away from the fact that no one has overdosed to death on Marijuana, and that the vast majority of people want it. Here’s what McCoppin writes about the Lancet study, “The Lancet study, published in July by substance abuse researchers, involved interviews and surveys of about 1,500 non-cancer patients in Australia with opioid prescriptions for chronic pain. Following up after four years, participants who used cannabis reported more severe pain than people who did not use cannabis, with no evidence cannabis decreased opioid use.” (McCoppin) Here is a link to the study, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(18)30110-5/fulltext.
I would be ignorant to make criticism of the study when I am not at all qualified. Again though, I think the question is more about what the people are asking for and have voted for. I don’t know if Medical Cannabis is actually any sort of solution to the opioid crisis but I know that it is better to take than pain killers, hasn’t killed anyone, and is wanted by the vast majority of people. I think there are a lot of deeper issues causing the Opioid crisis that go far beyond Marijuana access, like access to healthcare and addiction services. But if a person finds that using it helps ease their pain enough to avoid using pain killers or even just enough to decrease dependence on pain killers, then I don’t see why it should be denied. Another important detail on Kevin Sabet’s SAM group. A ton of their funding has come from a retired millionaire art collector named Julie Schauer, whose views on Marijuana are….less than intelligent. Here’s a snippet of her talking about the evils of weed and its backers on Facebook. “Marijuana was the drug of choice of the Tsarnaev brothers, the recent Santa Barbara shooter(note his video, smoke pot everyday.) James Holmes, Jared Loughner. The POT PROMOTERS are in total DENIAL.” Don’t ask why she put in all caps those select words because I have no idea. What should be clear though is that this person is claiming weed helped create mass shooters, and is the major contributor to a group that aims to affect public policy. That Facebook post also took aim at George Soros, who if you pay attention at all to twitter, is like the holy grail of far right wing conspiracy anger. There is something dark underneath the respectable guise SAM has constructed for itself, and it should be ignored when it comes to crafting public policy.
I’ve made it clear that I support this measure and further legalization but I am under no delusions that this is going to be a revolutionary moment in public health or that it will get to the root of health inequality. People need healthcare as a right and not a privilege. They need free access to addiction services, financial security, and all the things we consider as basic elements of our humanity. So many homeless people and others who are impoverished suffer from addiction issues and other health troubles they can’t afford to treat, and cannabis access isn’t going to be their savior. But clearly there is a well of support that believes Cannabis can help their pain and that the government has no right to deny that. We should listen to them and continue to make the people the center of health policy, not non profit groups, or the government. Here is some further information provided by McCoppin, “Shah said the elimination of background checks and fingerprinting for applicants goes into effect immediately, and all patients may now get provisional approval to buy medical marijuana immediately upon receiving a receipt for payment from the state health department. But it will take the state until Dec. 1 to implement all the new rules for the program, and will take until early next year to develop a new system to monitor the program to make sure that opioid replacement patients don’t go to multiple dispensaries and don’t buy marijuana for more than 90 days at a time. The 90-day period can be renewed by patients’ doctors. Patients who qualify for medical marijuana for something other than opioid replacement can maintain their authorization for three years. Some local health departments are now offering services to help patients complete applications for medical marijuana.”