Chicagoans Switch From Opioids To Cannabis Under New Program | WBEZ
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Chicagoans Switch From Opioids To Medical Cannabis Under New State Program

A handful of people in Illinois have now ditched their prescription opioid pain medication for medical pot.

The Opioid Alternative Pilot Program began accepting enrollees Thursday. The program allows Illinois residents eligible for a prescription for opioids to get a type of medical cannabis card instead. Previously, patients had to have one of about 40 qualifying conditions, like cancer or HIV/AIDS, to access medical cannabis in Illinois.

A patient needs their doctor’s approval to join the program. Patients register online with that approval, a state ID, proof of Illinois residency, and a $10 fee. A doctor’s continued approval is required every 90 days to stay in the program.

39 patients registered for the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program on its first day, according to Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold. Four patients fully completed the registration process.

The program moves much quicker than the state’s medical cannabis program, allowing patients to make their first purchase the same day they register. On Friday morning, two of the program’s first four registered patients showed up at Cresco Lab’s Floramedex dispensary in northwest suburban Elmwood Park to do just that.

Miles Bryan/WBEZ

Tashena Altman, 30, drove up with her boyfriend from Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood. Altman has sickle cell disease. She said she’s been prescribed a variety of opioid pain medications over the years, but has avoided taking the drugs because it makes her too sleepy to take care of her disabled 2-year-old son.

“I would sit and cry at the side of his bed because I was in so much pain,” Altman said. “With the marijuana, I am able to stay alert.”

Dan Barker, 27, who lives in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, said playing football at Drake University in Iowa left him suffering from chronic pain. He said prescription opioids make him feel slow and he’s worried about the potential to become addicted.

Barker said he’s excited to make the switch to medical cannabis — but he still hasn’t told his parents.

“They’re open minded, [but] I’m just really nervous about it.”

52,000 people currently qualify for medical cannabis in Illinois, according to the state Department of Public Health. Advocates and business people are preparing for that number to surge under the opioid alternative program — almost 2.5 million Illinois residents had an opioid prescription in 2017.  

“The population of people who take opioids in Illinois is huge,” said Cresco Labs Chief Communications Officer Jason Erkes. “If a percentage of them decide to use cannabis, it could drastically increase our business.”

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