Editorial | An attempt to curb opioid tragedies

Editorial | An attempt to curb opioid tragedies

Illinois' experiment in making medical marijuana available as an opioid replacment is worth exploring.

Gov. Bruce Rauner last week signed legislation making medical marijuana available as an opioid replacement.

Given the present opioid epidemic, it's hard even for those skeptical of medical marijuana claims to take issue with the decision by the General Assembly to pass this bill and Rauner to sign it.

After all, even if medical marijuana doesn't work as well as the legislation's proponents predict, can it do more harm than what is being done now?

The bill represents a legislative response to the thousands of deaths nationwide attributed to overdoses from the narcotic.

More than 70,000 people died nationwide in 2016, including an estimated 2,000 in Illinois. Even on its worst day, marijuana can't do that much harm.

That's why Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the state's Department of Public Health, said she is "pleased to see an alternative for pain management that doesn't have any potential for a fatal overdose."

Although the scientific community has conflicting opinions about marijuana's healing effects, Shah said researchers have concluded that it can be effective in treating pain in a way that reduces opioid use and, consequently, opioid-related deaths.

While the new law takes effect immediately, it will take a while to get this new program started. The state has until Dec. 1 to implement rules governing the program to ensure patients don't fill prescriptions at multiple dispensaries and don't buy marijuana for more than 90 days at a time.

Obviously, there are concerns that those who fill prescriptions might start distributing the substance rather than using it exclusively for medicinal purposes.

Under a pilot project established by the new law, licensed physicians must certify that a patient "has a medical condition for which an opioid has been or could be prescribed" and register at a licensed dispensary. Patients must be at least 21 and prescriptions are limited to 2.5 ounces every two weeks.

Opioids are reported to be highly addictive, even if used over short periods of time. The jury is out on the question of marijuana's impact on users. It's been described as a "gateway drug" to the use of more serious drugs and characterized as habit-forming, even if not addictive in the scientific sense.

However pure the intentions behind this new law, it represents another in a series of steps toward outright legalization.

Several states, including Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana. Other states, including California, have made it so widely available as a medical option that it amounts to legalization.

Illinois has descriminalized possession of small quantities of marijuana, meaning it's a fine-only offense. Between decriminalization and law enforcement's lack of interest in enforcing violations of possessions of small quantities, it's effectively legal in Illinois as well.

The problem with medical marijuana is that it's been so overhyped as a cure for virtually everything that some proponents have lost all credibility on the subject. Further, medical groups argued it serves no medical purpose whatsoever and warned that widespread consumption creates a variety of public health and safety threats.

For example, psychiatrists have argued that it can be catastrophic for the mentally ill individual to use marijuana. Despite that, sometimes it makes sense to fight fire with fire — in this case, medical marijuana as an alternative to opioid use.

It's important to remember, however, that this is an experiment. If it doesn't have the desired results, state leaders ought to be prepared to acknowledge failure and take proper action.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion