For months, Illinois’ fledgling medical cannabis industry had been limping along — dogged by uncertainties over its future and hurt by disappointingly low numbers of patients whose medical conditions qualified them for state certification cards.
Since last week, however, the clouds of gloom have lifted thanks to a compromise bill now awaiting Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature. The measure would extend the state medical cannabis pilot program by 2 1/2 years, to July 1, 2020. It would also expand the list of qualifying conditions, to include post-traumatic stress disorder and terminal illnesses, potentially adding hundreds of thousands of new patients to the state registry.
Medical cannabis users, dispensary owners and physicians who were interviewed agree the measure, which Rauner has promised to sign, could be a lifeline for the state’s industry, providing it with the critical mass of patients and healthcare personnel necessary for its long-term future.
For Mike Guess, an Air Force veteran who lives in Shiloh, the bill to extend the pilot program brought a great sense of relief.
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Guess suffers from fibromylagia, which causes severe nerve pain in his limbs. He has been using medical cannabis since late January. The cannabis has been a godsend, allowing him to quit dangerous anti-depressants and opiate-based pain-killers, Guess said, while enabling him to sleep soundly through the night.
“Just giving (patients) the option to get off anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills who must be on them for PTSD — that’s terrific,” Guess said.
Dr. Greg Randle, a physician who runs a pain clinic in Maryville, said the inclusion of PTSD will be a boon for military veterans in the area.
“I see a lot of vets with PTSD, and they don’t qualify for the cannabis program because they don’t have a severe enough chronic condition to warrant it,” Randle said. “But PTSD can be easily treated with cannabis. I can get them off some of those anti-anxiety drugs they’re on right now. It’s a good thing.”
Illinois is joining a growing list of states and medical organizations that recognize the efficacy of medical cannabis in the treatment of PTSD, a psychiatric disorder that afflicts an estimated 8 percent of Americans. It can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as natural disasters, military combat, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault as an adult or child.
People who suffer PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to impair daily life. Medical cannabis seems to work because it reduces anxiety and erases the brain’s memory circuits.
I see a lot of vets with PTSD, and they don’t qualify for the cannabis program because they don’t have a severe enough chronic condition to warrant it. But PTSD can be easily treated with cannabis.
Dr. Greg Randle
Illinois’ embrace of cannabis to treat PTSD runs parallel to what’s going on in the federal government.
Only a few days before Gov. Rauner late last month agreed to the compromise deal that added PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions, the U.S. Senate and House both approved bills that include amendments requiring the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to lift restrictions barring VA doctors from talking about medical marijuana or recommending it to their patients.
So far, two dozen states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws to allow medical marijuana to treat conditions including anxiety and traumatic brain injury. Fourteen of those states allow doctors to recommend medical marijuana to treat PTSD.
Chris Stone, the chief executive of HCI Alternatives, which runs dispensaries in Collinsville and Springfield, sees the 2 1/2-year extension of the pilot program as a signal to customers and investors regarding the industry’s future. The pilot program had been slated to expire Jan. 1, 2018.
“I think for both it ensures the viability of it,” Stone said. “I think if it ends in 2017, it gets a lot of investors scared. I also think it gets a fair amount of patients scared to want to use alternative methods and then pulls the rug out from under them.”
As of early May, Illinois had 6,200 qualifying patients, including 45 people under the age of 18, and 8,100 who submitted a complete application.
Meanwhile, Illinois dispensaries sold nearly $2.3 million worth of cannabis to more than 5,100 patients during the month of May, according to program director Joseph Wright.
That figure represents a slight tick upward from April, which totaled $2.2 million in medical cannabis sales. May’s sales figures bring Illinois’ total marijuana sales to $10.8 million since medical sales began Nov. 9, 2015.
The state has 37 registered dispensaries. Illinois patients are able to use cannabis for 39 serious and debilitating health conditions.
Here are some other key changes that would happen under the compromise bill sitting on Rauner’s desk:
▪ Patient and caregiver cards will be valid for three years, instead of one.
▪ Upon renewal of patient and caregiver cards, no fingerprinting is required.
▪ Doctors will no longer have to recommend cannabis, but may simply certify that there is a legitimate doctor-patient relationship and that the patient has a qualifying condition.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in the pilot program has to do with the way patients get prescriptions. Physicians no longer will be required to recommend medical marijuana for patients with qualifying medical conditions — something that 82 percent of doctors in Illinois have been unwilling to do. Under the new rules, doctors only must verify their medical relationship with the patient, then confirm the patient has a qualifying condition or illness. The patient may then receive certification for a card from the Illinois Department of Health.