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Working towards medical cannabis acceptance as an alternative to opioids

Patients who have a prescription for opioids to manage pain may be eligible to switch to medical cannabis.
Dry and trimmed cannabis buds, stored in a glass jars

ROCK ISLAND, Illinois -- Patients who have a prescription for opioids to manage pain may be eligible to switch to medical cannabis. The Illinois Department of Public Health is offering patients that choice in an effort to combat the opioid epidemic. But Rock Island County health officials say they haven't seen patients seek that alternative.

"We have had no applications yet for the opioid alternative program," said Janet Hill, chief operating officer Rock Island County's health department.

She said her department is working to get the word out to patients and physicians, and has sent educational material to physicians in  the UnityPoint and Genesis healthcare systems.

"We are very hopeful that people take advantage of it. In our community health assessment which we recently completed, we do see that opioid use has gone up in the area and a lot of people start their opioid addiction by simply being given a prescription after a surgery, or a short-term pain incident, " she said, referring to a study of Muscatine and Scott Counties om Iowa, and Rock Island County in Illinois.

But in the Quad cities area, there is currently only one doctor willing to certify patients for medical cannabis treatment.

"As physicians, our job is to heal people. Our job is to provide them with the best we can," said Dr. Sayed Shah, a practitioner of holistic medicine at Mandala Integrative Medicine in Davenport. "I think by not telling them about medical cannabis, we’re doing a disservice to the people, to the patients."

In Illinois, patients would need a physician's certification for one of 41 qualifying conditions. Iowa's medical cannabidiol program launched in December with a limited list of qualifying conditions.

"This is the only medication I know that I know that helps with all kinds of pain," Shah said, adding that there are a lot of misconceptions about cannabis' addictiveness.

"Just like any medication if it’s used improperly, meaning if you use it too much, then there are some chances of getting addicted to it. But they are way less than compared to narcotics, like opioids," he said, adding that in addition, opioids have significant side effects and can cause patients to overdose.

With cannabis, he said, "you might feel sleepy, you wake up next day and you're fine. Cannabis does not kill."

Kaye Byers, a medical cannabis patient who suffers from an autonomic disorder, fibromyalgia and had gone through knee surgery, said her quality of life suffered prior to taking medical cannabis. She was often subjected to fainting episodes.

"I used to be in bed all the time, eating was hard. I didn’t have a life. I legit did not have a life until I started using cannabis," she said.

Her doctor prescribed hydrocodone, a powerful but highly addictive painkiller, among other drugs. Eventually he had to take her off those medications, so she sought out medical cannabis.

"It worked! I mean it was insane, like night and day," Byers said.

Byers told News 8, medical cannabis changed her life and she is working hard to help fight the stigma surrounding marijuana, even taking a job at Nature's Treatment of Illinois, a dispensary in Milan.

"Everyone deserves to eat food, to drink, to go out to breathe fresh air, to really enjoy themselves. So I don’t think there should be shame to have that quality of life," she said.

Rock Island County began the medical cannabis application program on May 4, 2018. So far, 31 clients have come in to seek help with filling out an application, though it is not necessary to apply in person and patients now have the added option of filing an application for a medical cannabis card online.

Despite the lack of applications at Rock Island County's Health Department for the opioid alternative program, businesses are betting on demand for cannabis products to rise dramatically. Already, Green Thumb Industries, a cannabis cultivation center in Rock Island and Natures Treatment of Illinois are working to increase their square footage.

"We see [the opioid alternative program] catching traction over the next few months, so we expect a lot more patients," NTI's manager Shannon Ballegeer explained.

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