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Illinois' sensible solution to opioids

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Monday, September 10, 2018  |  Editorial  |  By the Editorial Board

Marijuana, Medical, Recreational , Rauner, Bruce
llinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has signed a law allowing medical marijuana to be used as a painkiller in place of highly addictive and potentially deadly opioids. The move highlights, somewhat ironically, how our national thinking on drugs has evolved: The dangers of marijuana have been exaggerated in our culture for generations, while the far greater dangers of opioids were ignored until the nation became immersed in an addiction and overdose crisis.

The Illinois law is a sane and compassionate approach to the opioid crisis that should serve as an inspiration for Missourians as they vote this fall whether to legalize medical marijuana here.

Opioids are a class of powerful drugs that include heroin but are more familiar to most Americans in the form of legal prescription painkillers with brand names like OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin. Opioid abuse, addiction and fatal overdoses began growing into a national crisis starting in the late 1990s amid increased prescription use.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calls the addiction crisis an epidemic, and it is. Drug-overdose deaths as a whole have doubled in the past decade to around 72,000 last year, with the bulk of those deaths — almost 50,000 — caused by some form of opioid. More than 19,000 of those opioid deaths were caused by prescription painkillers.

As society has started confronting the dangers in our own medicine cabinets, Americans also have outgrown the cultural hysteria that once surrounded marijuana — another drug that has painkilling properties, but with an overdose mortality rate of exactly zero. Thirty states now allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes, a once-controversial proposition that today mostly isn’t. Nevertheless, federal law still treats it as a Schedule I drug, equivalent in danger to heroin.

Illinois has allowed use of marijuana in certain medical scenarios, under tight restrictions, for several years. The new measure, the “Alternatives to Opioids Act,” expands the state’s existing law to allow use by patients who have been taking or could have been prescribed opioid painkillers.

Rauner, a Republican, opposes legalization of recreational marijuana — a separate topic — and until recently opposed any expansion in the state’s medical marijuana law. He told reporters he came around on that issue after reviewing the data.

“We are creating an alternative to opioid addiction,” Rauner said as he signed the bill. “It’s clear that medical marijuana treats pain effectively, and is less addictive and disruptive than opioids.”

Missouri is among the minority of states that still don’t legally recognize marijuana as a legitimate medical option. That could change after Nov. 6, when as many as three separate ballot initiatives to legalize medical marijuana come up for a vote. Illinois has reminded us of just one of the potential benefits of making this important change to Missouri law.