Illinois: Using Cannabis to Combat Opioid Crisis and Generate Revenue

A Recap

When it comes to cannabis legalization ... science, social welfare, and policy are not always on the same page. One would hope that science would inform policy in the area of medicinal cannabis legislation. But it is exactly policy that has hindered the research of cannabis for decades. Cannabis legislation should be informed by science and the will of the electorate, not by a few fearful, uninformed lawmakers or special interest groups.

Because of the long-time prohibition of industrial hemp, it is going to take time for research to catch up. Meanwhile, the policy is happening now and is not always putting patients and awareness first.

Since the enactment of the 2014 Farm Bill, states have been passing cannabis legislation in varying degrees. This bill has been critical in motivating states to pursue cannabis legislation by:

  • defining industrial hemp apart from marijuana as containing .3% or less THC, therefore removing it from the controlled substances act (C.S.A.).
  • allowing the growth, cultivation, and marketing of industrial hemp under state determined pilot programs.
  • deferring to the states to create programs and legislation regarding their pilot programs.

Some states have narrowly legalized medicinal marijuana, and others have fully. Nine states and D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana. In some states, laws are made legislatively. In others, laws are forced by ballot initiatives that must pass with majority voter support.

When we examine each state’s laws and their path to whatever form of cannabis legalization they have enacted, we can get an idea of their motivations for doing so. It’s not always for patients. It’s not always for progress. Every state has some revealing concerns in its cannabis legalization landscape. Illinois is no different.

Illinois Cannabis Legislation Timeline

  • 1931—Prohibition Trend:  Illinois followed states across the nation in the trend of prohibiting the recreational use of marijuana.  
  • 1978—Cannabis Control Act:  Illinois passed this symbolic act of legalizing medical marijuana. Because the act depended on action taken by two other departments, Human Services, and the State Police, the technical legalization of medical marijuana never came to any real fruition. Neither department acted to make it happen.2013—Medical Cannabis:  The Illinois General Assembly passed and Gov. Patrick Quinn signed into law the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act. The act includes restrictive legalization of medical marijuana, including the following provisions:
  1. Patients must legally register for ID cards.
  2. Patients must have a prescription from a medical provider.
  3. Cardholders must have at least one of approximately 40 specified medical conditions.
  4. All cultivation facilities and dispensaries and agents must be registered with the respective government departments and are subject to monitoring and testing of plants and data.
  5. Patients under 18 may not register unless they suffer from seizures.
  6. Qualifying patients under 18 may only use medical cannabis-infused products.
  7. The Department of Public Health may use an administrative rule to add medical conditions to the list or adopt rules for qualifying patients under 18.

As of April 2018, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has approved around 34,700 qualifying applicants, 264 of which are under 18. The total retail sales since November 2015 by licensed medical cannabis dispensaries is $151,689,743.60.

  • 2016—Decriminalization:  Punishment for possession of fewer than 10 grams of cannabis went from jail time to a citation of $100-200.
  • 2017—Proposed Recreational Use Legalization:  Lawmakers proposed allowing recreational use of marijuana for people 21 and over, with tax revenue as the main selling point.
  • 2018—Illinois Industrial Hemp Act: Senate Bill 2298 passed nearly unanimously to legalize and regulate cultivation and production of all industrial hemp products. Growers need to be licensed by the Department of Agriculture.
  • 2018—Medical Cannabis Expansion:  Illinois expands its medical cannabis program with SB 336 to include:
  1. cannabis as a replacement for opioid painkiller users.
  2. easing the application process; applicants will no longer have to go through fingerprints or background checks.

Officials are estimating the expansion will bring up to 365,000 new patients to the medical marijuana program and generate around $435 million in state revenue.

The Legality of Hemp-Derived Cannabinoids in Illinois

Per section 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill, industrial hemp-derived cannabinoids are legal in the U.S. In August of 2018, the Industrial Hemp Act that swept through the Illinois General Assembly was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner. SB 2298 (The Industrial Hemp Act), like the 2014 Farm Bill, defines industrial hemp apart from cannabis. It does so with a specification that industrial hemp contains less than .3% THC, which means it has no psychoactive effects.

This separate definition of industrial hemp is necessary in order to establish a legal framework in which industrial hemp can be grown, cultivated and processed. Growers are subject to licensure with the Department of Agriculture, which, in part, will ensure quality control.

Now that industrial hemp has been defined apart from cannabis at the federal level, and because many states that wish to grow industrial hemp have followed, cannabinoids are technically no longer illicit, although some government entities still want to regulate them.

Because so many people are using cannabinoids for health treatment and disease prevention, regulation is important, insofar as making producers accountable for products free of contaminants. The best way that the government can regulate cannabinoids and medical marijuana is not through regulating access to them, but through regulating quality control and supporting research.

Symbolic Laws

The current cannabis legalization landscape is a maze of confusing interpretations, the rhetoric of legislators, and, unfortunately, laws that pass symbolically but have little-to-no real effect on access to or the benefits of cannabis.

In Wisconsin, for example, legislators passed Lydia’s Law in 2014, which allowed patients suffering from seizures access to CBD oil. But a caveat was added to the bill to make it more palatable for lawmakers who opposed legalizing CBD. The provision stated that a physician prescribing CBD had to obtain a special permit from the FDA. The program was too extensive, and physicians did not have the time or resources to comply. CBDs remained inaccessible for three more years.

After medical marijuana was legalized in Nevada, nearly 15 years elapsed before the first medical marijuana dispensary was opened.

Illinois has its own interesting symbolic law hitch. In 1978, medical marijuana was technically legalized in Illinois. Physicians could prescribe marijuana for glaucoma, chemotherapy patients, and other conditions certified as medically necessary. But there were two catches written into the law. First, the Department of Human Services was merely allowed to give doctors this authority—not required to. Second, it could act only "with the written approval of the Department of State Police." Neither department ever took action, and for 40 years, the legal use of medical marijuana was never put into practice in Illinois.

Making Laws for Solutions Not Symptoms

Why is it that lawmakers will too often only admit something works when there’s a crisis, an opportunity to make money, or sometimes just to glorify their own agendas? Tax revenue, commerce, and job creation are all great benefits of legalizing marijuana, legally and recreationally. Pursuing and supporting research and allowing access to the already proven benefits of cannabis for patients should be the priority when creating legislation.

In Illinois, the medical marijuana expansion bill passed because of the opioid crisis. It’s called the Alternative to Opioids Act. There is no doubt that the legislative move will save lives. More than 2 million patients in Illinois got opioid prescriptions in 2017. In the same year, over 13,000 people overdosed on opioids, and about 2,000 of those were fatal.

While there is evidence that cannabinoids may be able to treat opioid addiction, many of the prescriptions that were written in 2017 were perhaps for conditions that medical marijuana and cannabinoids could have treated in the first place. Government policy has hindered the research and progress that we could have already gained from cannabinoids and marijuana. Would there even be an opioid crisis if medical marijuana had been in play much sooner?

Like so many states, Illinois is promoting cannabis legislation right now to gain revenue, combat the opioid crisis, and tout progression. But wouldn’t the real progress be gained by putting energy into the research, cultivation, and education of safe, effective natural medicines? Recreational legalization is great for adults who choose to use marijuana recreationally. But patients are not often familiar with marijuana. They need guidance and quality products. This is what government regulation should be about. Not criminalization of marijuana or banning individuals from growing their own plants because the government wants the tax revenue.

It’s past time to put patients first.


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Sonner, Scott, et. al. “First legal medical pot sold in Nevada 15 years after approval.”  31 July 2015. Las Vegas Sun. Web. Accessed 7 September 2018.

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