Medical marijuana to be available to more Illinoisans under new program

A new pilot program that would make medical marijuana available to more people in Illinois is expected to begin next week.

Former Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program (OAPP) into law in August. Currently, the IT system that would implement the program, which includes registration and tracking, is being finalized before the program launches by Jan. 31.

In years past, patients in Illinois could only get medical cannabis if they have one of the pre-approved debilitating conditions, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS or Parkinson’s disease. The new Opioid Alternative Pilot Program would allow people without those conditions to get medical cannabis as well if their doctors are willing to submit a certification.

How the program works

A patient who wishes to apply for OAPP must be an Illinois resident who is at least 21 years old.

To begin the process, the patient would talk with their doctor about whether medical cannabis is a suitable alternative treatment to opioids for the patient’s condition, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

If so, the doctor would then complete a certification saying that the patient either has a prescription of opioids or could be prescribed one. The doctor would then submit the certification online. Only after that’s done can the patient register for the program.

The registration would also be done online, on a website that the state has yet to announce. The health department says a $10 application fee is required for every 90-day registration period. Also required for registration are the following:

— A government issued ID such as a current Illinois driver’s license or a state ID.
— Proof of Illinois residency, such as a utility bill or voter registration card.
— A 2 inch by 2 inch color passport photo.

If the patient is approved for the program, they would receive an email notice from the state. Bringing the notice to a dispensary would allow the patient to buy medical cannabis. The cost of the cannabis is not covered by health insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare.

Curbing the opioid epidemic

The creators of OAPP cite the State of Illinois Opioid Action Plan, which says that 11,000 people died in Illinois from opioid overdoses from 2008 to 2017.  The hope is to reduce that number through this new program.

“Southern Illinois is also at risk for lots of other diseases, chronic diseases. We have a lot of very high poverty rates, a lot of higher unemployment rates. We have poor health outcomes in the southern seven counties. So naturally, anytime you have those situations together, you’re going to have an opioid problem,” said Rhonda Ray, executive director of the Southern 7 Health Department in Ullin, Illinois.

Preparing for the new program 

To prepare for the launch of OAPP, local dispensaries — such as Harbory in Marion, and Thrive in Anna and Harrisburg — have already hired more staff.

“We’re training our staff on the rules and everything, with guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health,” said Thrive Executive Director Rosie Naumovski.

“The projections have been astronomical as to who may join the program,” Harbory Manager Lori Ellis said. “I mean, based on the people that are on opioids in Illinois, you know, in the millions that are prescribed opioids.”

Army veteran Joshua Crouch, who works at Harbory, said medical cannabis has done wonders for his PTSD and other conditions.

“I could feel the difference — the same thing, the same results the opioids were giving me — with the ability to think. I mean, I could just have normal, cognitive thoughts, cognitive conversations,” said Crouch. “The difference between opioids is life.”

When the registration website launches, it is expected to be announced on the health department website. Illinoisans who need help with registering can visit a licensed medical cannabis dispensary or a participating local health department.

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