Rauner signs medical marijuana expansion bill allowing drug as painkiller alternative

A measure that could dramatically expand access to medical marijuana in Illinois — making it available as an opioid painkiller replacement and easing the application process for all who qualify — was signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner on Tuesday.

The new law is a response to the epidemic of overdose deaths from narcotics, which killed almost 2,000 people in the state in 2016 and an estimated 72,000 people nationwide last year. It would allow doctors to authorize medical marijuana for any patient who has or would qualify for a prescription for opioids like OxyContin, Percocet or Vicodin.

“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.”

But the measure is also noteworthy for removing some of the major restrictions on the medical marijuana program in Illinois.

No longer will any applicants have to be fingerprinted and undergo criminal background checks. And those who complete an online application with a doctor’s authorization will get a provisional registration to buy medical cannabis while they wait for state officials to make a final review of their request.

Rauner signed the bill Tuesday at the Chicago Recovery Alliance, a nonprofit that distributes clean needles and overdose-reversing naloxone, and conducts other programs to help prevent deaths from heroin overdose.

Suzanne Carlberg-Racich, director of research for the alliance and assistant professor of public health at DePaul University, said she welcomes the new law as a way to prevent overdose deaths and provide a less addictive treatment for pain relief.

“This is a great step in the right direction,” she said. “I’m pleased to see an alternative for pain management that doesn’t have any potential for a fatal overdose.”


Gov. Bruce Rauner holds up a bill expanding access to medical marijuana in Illinois that he signed at Chicago Recovery Alliance on Chicago’s West Side on Aug. 28, 2018. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)