SPRINGFIELD — Medical-marijuana dispensaries in Springfield and Grandview were fielding calls Thursday from people who want to reduce their use of narcotic painkillers or avoid the potentially addictive drugs entirely.
Those expressing interest in medical marijuana but not having one of the approximately 40 qualifying health conditions for the state's ongoing program may be able to get legal cannabis through a new portal — Illinois' Opioid Alternative Pilot Program.
Thursday was the first day of enrollment for the opioid alternative option, created last year in legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and signed by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, as part of an effort to reduce fatal overdoses of both illegal and legal opioids.
If doctors are willing to certify online that their patients have or could receive a prescription for opioids, those patients can qualify for the new program's temporary registry cards, pay a $10 fee, select a dispensary and begin buying medical marijuana.
The expanded access to medical marijuana — taking place while the legislature considers legalizing recreational use of marijuana — is expected to contribute to a doubling of medical-marijuana users over the next 12 months, according to Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.
The state had approved applications for 52,365 qualifying patients in the regular medical-marijuana program as of Jan. 4.
The expansion is viewed as a boon for the state's highly regulated network of marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers, as well as for patients whose pain may be relieved more safely by marijuana and with fewer side effects and health risks, Linn said.
"We think that this could save people's lives, and we're not exaggerating," he said.
Linn is general manager of the Maribis of Springfield dispensary at 2722 North Grand Ave. E. in Grandview. He also supervises a Maribis dispensary on Chicago's southwest side.
Patients' online applications for the opioid alternative program can be processed so that temporary cards are emailed to them within 24 hours. Those patients are expected to begin showing up at dispensaries in coming days and weeks, local dispensary operators said.
"We're beyond excited," said Christine Karhliker, community outreach coordinator for HCI Alternatives.
HCI operates marijuana dispensaries at 628 E. Adams St. in Springfield and in Collinsville.