News Article Details

Proposal would make state medical pot program permanent, add osteoarthritis, chronic pain, autism, migraines, other conditions

Chicago Tribune - 3/22/2019

March 22-- Mar. 22--Medical marijuana in Illinois would become legal permanently under a proposed new state law, and the list of qualifying conditions would expand greatly to include common conditions such as osteoarthritis, autism and chronic pain.

The former top regulator of medical marijuana in the state, Bob Morgan, is a new Democratic state representative from Deerfield and the chief sponsor of the plan. He says he knows of no significant opposition, and expects lawmakers to approve the measure this spring.

"We've had a (pilot program) that shows this is a safe program without diversion (to illegal use)," Morgan said. "It's helping people who are struggling with serious medical conditions."

The medical marijuana program allows patients with any of about 40 serious medical conditions, such as cancer and AIDS, to qualify for 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks with their doctors' approval.

The pilot program has evolved a couple of times since Illinois lawmakers approved it with bipartisan support in 2013, and sales began in late 2015. Former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner later approved extending the life of the program to mid-2020 and added post-traumatic stress disorder and terminal illness as qualifying conditions, but abolished the medical cannabis advisory board that had recommended adding more conditions.

Last year, Rauner signed a law to allow medical marijuana as an alternative to prescription opioids, and ended a requirement for patient fingerprints and criminal background checks. Those two measures significantly expanded the program to its current size of about 58,000 patients, but so far the program remains smaller than in many other states, mainly because it doesn't allow patients to use the drug for pain, the most common qualifying condition elsewhere.

The General Assembly is also expected soon to consider legalizing recreational use of cannabis, but if approved it would likely take until next year before sales are allowed. One advantage of medical marijuana would be to avoid taxes placed on recreational marijuana.

By many accounts, the program has worked as intended. Many of the patients say they use marijuana to help them get off other stronger prescription drugs. Police have not reported any major problems with people selling or using medical marijuana without certification.

Even Healthy and Productive Illinois, a nonprofit group which is fighting the proposed legalization of recreational marijuana, does not oppose medical marijuana or decriminalization, lobbyist Tim McAnarney said. He wasn't able to comment on the proposal to make the medical program permanent, saying he'd have to see how much it would expand use.

The bill would also allow doctors to be paid by medical marijuana businesses or patients. Morgan said that doctors would still be prohibited from getting kickbacks for referrals, but this would allow them to be paid for research.

As proposed, new qualifying conditions would be chronic pain, autism, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, osteoarthritis, anorexia nervosa, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Neuro-Behcet's autoimmune disease, neuropathy, polycystic kidney disease and superior canal dehiscence syndrome.

Research on the effects of cannabis on autism is very limited. Many doctors and several medical groups warn against using a drug which has not been thoroughly tested and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that the federal government classifies as being addictive with no medicinal value.

The American Academy of Pediatrics opposes the use of medical marijuana, noting that it can harm memory, learning and coordination, and lead to psychological problems or drug dependence. But the AAP supports "compassionate use" for children with debilitating or life-limiting diseases, and urges the government to relax the classification of the drug to allow more research.

Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, a nonprofit advocacy group, lists several studies suggesting preliminary support for the treatment, and counting nine states that allow the drug for autism.

Marijuana has been shown to be helpful for many of the conditions that accompany autism, such as epilepsy, pain, aggression and anxiety, said Wendy Fournier, president of the National Association of Autism. She said cannabidiol oil tinctures have helped reduce her autistic daughter's seizures and helped her sleep.

"There aren't any good alternatives, so if this is working for some people, go for it, let's do it," she said. "This is a potentially life-changing treatment for some people."

The proposed bill also includes language to allow unspecified "medical conditions or symptoms for which a person may benefit from the use of medical cannabis," but Morgan said he would remove that language as a compromise to gain broader support.

Those conditions were previously recommended by the former advisory board, and some were the subject of lawsuits and court orders, but the Rauner administration refused to approve them.

Jim Champion, a veteran with multiple sclerosis, was looking forward to changes the bill would bring, such as no longer forcing patients with chronic conditions to recertify their ailments. With his wife Sandy, the Champions lobbied to pass the original law, and worked with Morgan on the new bill.

One important change, they said, was to have the state Department of Public Health make provisions for veterans to qualify under for medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids. Because the drug remains prohibited under federal law, Veterans Affairs doctors are prohibited from certifying their patients.

"We fully support this and look forward to making it permanent," Sandy Champion said.

The bill would also allow patients to have multiple caregivers who could buy their medical marijuana for them, would allow transportation of the drug after it is opened, and would provide for returns of damaged or inadequate products.

rmccoppin@chicagotribune.com

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