Alternative to Opioids: A Sit Down with Senator Don Harmon

If I were to tell you that that Illinois experienced 799 firearm-related homicides in 2017, what would you say? Would you be surprised?

With Chicago’s propensity for gun violence periodically making national news, I am going to go out on a limb and say probably not.

But if I were to tell you that deaths related to painkilling opioids, also known as “opioid analgesics”, nearly doubled firearm-related homicides in the same year, what would you say then?

If you are anything like me, your response might be something like, “seriously?”

Yes, seriously.

In 2017, there were 1,583 opioid overdose deaths related to analgesic uses, just about twice as many homicides as by firearms. And what’s worse is that it’s only getting, well, worse. There are significantly more opioid-related overdoses in Illinois than there were just a few years ago, up 82% from 2013.

Houston, err Springfield, we have a problem. More of a crisis, actually. And unlike the gun-related variety we Illinoisians know of all too well, it’s not confined to Chicago. The crisis is statewide.

So what do we do? We get informed, for starters, and we call on our elected officials to take action. After all, solving a statewide crisis such as this will “take a village”, as the saying goes. So, engaging legislators across the political spectrum is critical to successful outcomes.

One such legislator who has not only heeded this call, but taken to leadership on this issue is Senator Don Harmon of the 39th District.

His bill, SB336 or the “Alternative to Opioids Act”, which has been passed by the Illinois General Assembly and is awaiting action from Governor Rauner, involves opening up the medical cannabis program in Illinois to include conditions that could otherwise be treated with opioids. Or perhaps better put, if you can get a prescription for opioid analgesics, you would be allowed to use medical cannabis (assuming it becomes law).

There are four key provisions of this bill to take note of. They are as follows:

  • As mentioned above, it creates a new pilot program allowing temporary access to medical cannabis for 90 days for patients with conditions for which opioids could be prescribed

  • It removes all felony exemptions from obtaining a medical card.

  • A temporary registration program would be instated to replace the existing 3-6 month waiting period for approval to the state’s medical cannabis pilot program.

  • It allows doctors to revoke a medical cannabis permit if there is not a lasting, bona fide relationship with the patient.

Senator Harmon, it just so happens, is my senator. You can therefore imagine the pride I felt in learning that SB336 was his bill. So what’s a proud constituent to do when their elected official sponsors a bill that speaks to their cannabis reforming sensibilities? Interview them, of course!

I sat down with Senator Harmon on a beautiful Monday afternoon at his office in Oak Park. The first thing I wanted to understand was simple, how did this bill begin? The senator explained how a hearing held in Springfield a little over the year ago was the impetus, “I heard testimony from witnesses that allowed (medical cannabis) to dramatically reduce the use of opioids with very little side effects.”

That sounds about right.

According to Aclara Research’s, “The Illinois Medical Cannabis Patient Experience Study”, 86% of medical cannabis users are treating the leading symptoms of chronic pain. For a state that lacks “chronic pain” as a qualifying condition in its medical cannabis program, I’d call that eye opening. Moreover, 33% of them were able to completely stop using all prescription drugs, while 92% were able to decrease the amount used.

And considering the bill passed both the IL house and senate with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, a rarity these days, both sides of the political spectrum have largely been convinced. However, Governor Bruce Rauner, as is typical when it comes to cannabis, has remained mum on the issue. He has resisted expanded access to medical cannabis in the past and is even rumored to have disbanded the Illinois Medical Cannabis Advisory Board. So what he may or may not do in response is anyone’s guess.

Fortunately, people who would very much like to see this become law, people like myself, should not be overly concerned. When asked if there is enough support to override a potential veto, Senator Harmon pointed again to the strong bipartisan support in passing the bill.

That’s not to say, however, that a veto from the governor wouldn’t be a big setback. The legislative process involved would mean waiting until the General Assembly’s next veto session in November — 4 months away. If 2017 was any indication, that could mean dozens, if not hundreds, of lives.

See, somewhere at the intersection of the policy and the politics is the human being. Even if you are not a victim yourself, for example, most of us know someone who has been touched by an opioid-related tragedy. People caught in the stranglehold of addiction or worse, departed much too soon. It happens all the time.

So the question ought not to be framed around why should medical cannabis be an alternative treatment to opioids in Illinois, but why should medical cannabis not be?

Side effects?

The side effects of cannabis are largely well known. Depending on the type used, they can include dry mouth, drowsiness, short-term memory issues and yes, the “munchies.”  Whatever they may be, however, they certainly are not serious. As Senator Harmon plainly summed it up, “No one has ever died of a cannabis overdose.”

Correct. Not one single soul. Ever.

We cannot say the same about opioid analgesics, obviously. Not by a long shot.

It begs an even deeper question then: If medical cannabis can effectively treat pain instead of opioid analgesics, and opioid analgesics are considerably more dangerous, is it immoral to deny patients access to it?

I did not get to ask Senator Harmon this question, but I am fairly certain as to what is answer would be. His leadership on the issue speaks loudly enough.

As Governor Rauner mulls a decision, however, I would hope he asks this himself. Some legislation is more than just a policy a decision, it’s a moral one. And the plain truth is that if your moral code dictates to you to care about the well being of other human beings, then supporting SB336, the “Alternative to Opioids”, is the only choice.

Travis MerleComment