On August 28th of this year, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed a law that made medical marijuana available to people as a replacement for opioid painkillers. Under the new law, doctors in Illinois can authorize marijuana to any patient who qualifies for a prescription for any kind of opioid such as OxyContin, Vicodin, or Percocet.

In addition, the law makes it easier for patients to access medical marijuana with requirements for fingerprinting and background checks being lifted immediately. That means patients can get a doctor’s authorization online and instantly receive a provisional approval to purchase medical marijuana from the state health department.

Marijuana as an Opioid Alternative

Illinois isn’t the first state make medical marijuana available as an opioid replacement, and for good reason. The opioid epidemic in the United States continues to grow with more than 90 Americans dying of opiate overdoses every day. Approximately 2.5 million Americans have already been diagnosed with an opioid use disorder and a large number of people are still undiagnosed. Every year, 200 million prescriptions are written for opioid painkillers in the U.S., which is just about matches the country’s total adult population. Several years ago, the cost of the opioid epidemic to the U.S. economy was conservatively estimated at $78 billion per year.

In other words, opioids are a very big problem in the United States, and the government is spending billions to combat it. Research shows that marijuana can help.

For years, researchers have released results from studies that found cannabis can be as effective or more effective for pain treatment than opioids. A National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report found there is solid evidence that marijuana is effective in treating pain. The study results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in May of this year.

The researchers’ analyses of the Medicare Part D population and opioid prescriptions revealed that prescriptions filled for all opioids decreased by 2.11 million daily doses per year from an average of 23.08 million daily doses per year when a state instituted a medical cannabis law. In addition, prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 3.742 million daily doses per year when medical marijuana dispensaries opened in a state.

A separate study published in JAMA and conducted over the same period by different scientists found that medical and recreational marijuana laws were associated with annual opioid prescription rates reductions of 5.88% and 6.38%, respectively.

In each of these studies, researchers found that marijuana is not only effective in treating pain, replacing opioids for treatment of pain, and reducing the use of opioids when states allow patients to use it, but also, when patients have easy access to medical marijuana dispensaries to purchase cannabis products, the number of opioid prescriptions drops even more.

These aren’t the only studies that have found marijuana is effective at treating pain and can replace opioids with less dangerous effects. A study from the University of Kentucky and Emory University found that marijuana relieves pain with a lower risk of addiction than opioids and has no risk of overdose.

A 2014 study found that 63% of Canadian patients preferred to substitute marijuana for prescription drugs, particularly opioids. Similarly, a University of Michigan study found that pain patients in the U.S. reported they used opioids 64% less when they had access to medical marijuana. Clearly, a very large number of patients want to replace opioids with medical marijuana.

In addition, a RAND report that was published in the Journal of Health Economics found that states with medical marijuana dispensaries experienced a significant decline in opioid overdoses over a 10-year study period. In the report, the researchers specifically explain that their findings show states with easily accessible dispensaries have less severe opioid problems. But that’s not all. The study also revealed that medical professionals in states that allow medical marijuana are less likely to prescribe opioids to patients.

Combine all of these research results with HelloMD’s research findings that show 92% of patients would prefer to treat their medical conditions with cannabis than opioids and 93% would be more likely to choose cannabis for treatment if it were easier to get. What does that tell you? Simple – marijuana just might be a key part of the opioid epidemic solution in the United States.

What Does this Mean for Illinois?

By passing this law, the governor has opened a new part of the Illinois marijuana market that was unserved or underserved previously. That means marijuana licenses for businesses in Illinois just got more valuable.

It will take the state until December 1, 2018 to implement all of the rules related to the new law, and it won’t be until early 2019 that the state will have a system in place to monitor the program. However, Illinois dispensary license holders and other marijuana license holders are already preparing for more business, and they’re wise to do so.

Think of it this way. The Chicago Tribune reports that Illinois has approved approximately 42,000 medical marijuana patients, and those patients have purchased about $200 million of cannabis products since sales began in November 2015. Compare those numbers to the 2.3 million patients in the state who received approximately 5 million opioid prescriptions in 2017 alone. Of course, some of those prescriptions likely went to the same patients, but even if just a small percentage of those opioid patients shift to medical marijuana, the marijuana market in Illinois could grow exponentially.

Susan Gunelius, Lead Analyst for Cannabiz Media and author of Marijuana Licensing Reference Guide: 2017 Edition, is also President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company offering, copywriting, content marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, and strategic branding services. She spent the first half of her 25-year career directing marketing programs for AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more as well as small businesses around the world. Susan has written 11 marketing-related books, including the highly popular Content Marketing for Dummies, 30-Minute Social Media Marketing, Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, The Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing, and she is a popular marketing and branding keynote speaker. She is also a Certified Career Coach and Founder and Editor in Chief of Women on Business, an award-winning blog for business women. Susan holds a B.S. in marketing and an M.B.A in management and strategy.