Prescribed opioids but want to try medical marijuana instead? A new Illinois program will let you. Here’s how.
From the Chicago Tribune
Mission South Shore medical marijuana dispensary is experiencing a growth spurt. It expanded its parking lot, tripling the number of spaces, and in the past six months has tripled the size of its workforce.
It’s not done yet, said Rick Armstrong, general manager of the dispensary in the South Chicago neighborhood. The Illinois Department of Public Health is set to roll out its Opioid Alternative Pilot Program by the end of January, which is expected to dramatically increase demand for medical marijuana. Mission wanted to be ready, and it is not alone.
Dispensaries around the state are extending hours, hiring additional workers and more in preparation for increased demand. Signed into law in August, the pilot program will allow people who are prescribed opioids to access medical marijuana. Previously, patients had to have one of about 40 qualifying conditions, such as cancer or AIDS, to be able to use the drug.
“We want to be prepared if one patient comes in the door or 100 patients,” Armstrong said. “We want to be there, ready to go.”
For months now, the number of patients allowed to use medical marijuana has been growing at a quicker pace as the stigma surrounding the drug, which is still illegal on the federal level, begins to fade. Illinois’ medical marijuana program is set to expire in July 2020, and it will be up to newly sworn in Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state lawmakers to make it permanent. Pritzker promised in his inaugural address Monday that he would work to legalize recreational marijuana.
It’s not just an increase in sales cultivators and dispensaries are preparing for as the state gets ready to launch the opioid pilot program. Patients will be able to seek help registering at local health departments or dispensaries, said Conny Mueller Moody, deputy director for the Office of Health Promotion and Medical Cannabis.
Mission Chicago South Shore Medical Marijuana Dispensary is seen in Chicago on Jan. 8, 2019. The business has expanded its parking lot and tripled its workforce in anticipation of increased demand. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Here’s how it will work:
• Patients visit a doctor. A patient must either have a prescription for an opioid already or the doctor must determine that one could be prescribed.
• The doctor electronically submits a physician certification via Illinois’ new registration system. This is one of the new pieces of technology the state has been working to implement. The system is secure, and only physicians have access, Moody said.
• Once the physician certification is submitted, the patient can go to a dispensary or a local health department for help registering for the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program.
• People can register through the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program’s website, which the state is still setting up, or seek help at a dispensary or health department. Patients will need a copy of their driver’s license or state ID and a passport-style photo and will be required to pay $10. People who are licensed to drive a school bus or commercial vehicle must cancel those licenses to be eligible.
• Once all of those items are uploaded into the state’s system, it will generate a registration number and approve the patient for 90 days. Patients will not get plastic cards the way medical marijuana program participants do. Instead, registration certificates will be emailed to them, Moody said. The patients can either print them out or keep them on their phones, just like electronic tickets to a concert or boarding passes.
• Patients can buy marijuana shortly after registering.
• When the 90 days are up, patients must visit their doctor and have them submit another physician certification and pay the $10 to renew.
The Department of Public Health will soon update its website with instructions on how to register for the program and make brochures with the information available to dispensaries, local health departments and health care providers. It is also planning a webinar to educate physicians on the program.
The law Rauner signed in August also nixed the requirement for patients to undergo fingerprinting and a background check before registering for Illinois’ broader medical marijuana pilot program. Additionally, the Department of Public Health will be granting applicants provisional access while their applications are reviewed, allowing them quicker access to the drug.
Participants in the program and industry operators have long complained of long wait times for medical marijuana cards. Some have reported loved ones dying before their cards were received.
Once patients start registering for the opioid alternative program, it will likely take several months for demand to really ramp up, said Chris Stone, CEO of medical marijuana company Ascend Illinois.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an onslaught at the beginning,” he said. “Doctors still need to be educated on it … (as does) regulatory staff.”
Still, the company is preparing. It extended the operations of its dispensaries in Springfield and Collinsville by two hours each day, increased employee count by 60 percent and is exploring how to build customer loyalty in sales.
Boston-based Ascend entered Illinois last month when it merged with HCI Alternatives. That deal is still pending regulatory approvals. Ascend also acquired the cultivation license for a facility in downstate Barry from Illinois-based Revolution Enterprises.
Like other growers in the state, Highland Park-based Grassroots Cannabis is juggling an expansion of its growing capacity at its facility in Litchfield, about 210 miles southwest of Chicago, and figuring out how best to prepare for the opioid program on the retail side. It is considering adding checkout systems and extending hours at its eight affiliated dispensaries around the state, which operate under different names, CEO Mitch Kahn said. Patients at most of those dispensaries can now also order online to cut down on the in-store wait.
At the same time, Grassroots is planning to move its headquarters to Chicago to accommodate its growing head count.
As patient count starts to tick up under the new program and new protocols are introduced, the physical layouts of dispensaries may also need to be reconsidered. For example, the entry areas at several dispensaries owned by Cresco Labs must be reconfigured, spokesman Jason Erkes said. The areas, previously used mainly to check medical marijuana cards before a patient entered the dispensary, will soon serve more as a waiting room to accommodate people who want to register for the program.
The River North-based company last month acquired two additional dispensaries, bringing the total count it has ownership stakes in to five. There are 55 licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Illinois, which has more than 52,000 qualified patients.
Staff at those dispensaries will need to be prepared for more people coming in for pain management, said Jennifer Dooley, chief strategy officer at River North-based Green Thumb Industries.
At maturity, medical cannabis programs typically reach about 1 to 2 percent of a state’s population, Dooley said. In Illinois, that’s 128,000 to 256,000 people. With medical marijuana a legal replacement for prescription opioids, the reach could increase to 3 to 4 percent of the population, she said.
But transitioning off of opioids takes time, and Green Thumb is training more staff to help patients transition safely, Dooley said. Its something the staff members have already seen — patients reducing their opioid use, pill by pill — and everyone is different, she said.
“You can’t just stop cold turkey, especially transitioning from opioids to cannabis,” Dooley said. “It’s an iterative process and very collaborative” between the dispensary specialists and the patients, she added.
“Just knowing there’s an increased amount of (opioid patients coming in) is going to be really important,” Dooley said.