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McCaleb: Illinois medical marijuana law is too restrictive

The first car crash nearly cost Yajaira Santiago her life.

The second might have just saved it.

Now, the Oak Park resident wants the world – or Illinois lawmakers, at least – to know why.

Santiago was 26 years old in 2008, working then as a cosmetologist in Chicago, when she was in an car crash. Her injuries were so severe that she suffered “constant pain everywhere.”

“It was like stabbing, burning, shooting sensations constantly,” Santiago said. “I was in so much pain. I didn’t understand why.”

She was placed on bed rest for nearly six months and had to undergo extensive physical therapy. But to ease the pain, her doctors prescribed opioids. When the pain still wouldn’t go away, her doses increased.

Santiago became addicted to opioids and said she quickly spiraled into “a black pit of despair.”

“I was in a constant fog. I was like a zombie, going through life without processing anything,” she said. “I lost an alarming amount of weight. I got down to about 70 pounds. I lost my job. I couldn’t function. I got very angry and agitated very easily. At the time, I thought it was just because I was in so much pain.”

After two years of living in a “constant fog,” Santiago said something inside her told her she had to get off the opioids.

“I took myself off my meds all at once when I should have gradually done it. But I was so scared,” she said. “There was something telling me, ‘You have to change, you have to get out of this.’ ”

That “something,” Santiago said, turned out to be her son. She learned while she was detoxing that she was pregnant.

“He’s so cool. He’s the best. He’s my biggest supporter,” she said of her son, who will turn 7 next week.

Santiago’s fortunes changed again last year. She was walking down the street when a car lost control and hit her. She suffered herniated discs in her neck and lower back, nerve damage in her right hand and other injuries.

The thought of being placed back on opioids scared her. But Santiago, in a way, was lucky.

While recovering from the first crash, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a kind of chronic muscular pain. And because of that experience, she also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Both happened to be on the list of a handful of ailments approved by Illinois lawmakers in 2013 to qualify for the state’s pilot medical marijuana program. Instead of opioids, Santiago was prescribed cannabis, which is much less addictive and has far fewer side effects than opioids.

“It saved my life,” she said.

But Illinois’ medical marijuana program is among the most restrictive in the country. In its present form, Illinois law allows doctors to prescribe medical cannabis to patients who suffer from only 40 specific types of ailments. Unlike in many other states, doctors are forbidden by law to prescribe cannabis to patients who aren’t diagnosed with one of the qualifying ailments, regardless of the pain they suffer. That often leaves opioids as their only option.

At the same time, the country’s battle with opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions.

According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, more than 1,800 people died of opioid-related overdoses in 2016. That’s up more than
70 percent from opioid-related overdose deaths in 2013, and it’s 30 percent more than the 1,382 opioid deaths in 2015. Nationally in 2015, there were 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Illinois’ medical cannabis program doesn’t include opioid addiction and many other painful ailments as a qualifying condition.

Santiago and others like her want to change that, and expand the list of conditions for which medical marijuana can be prescribed.

But as usual in Illinois, making common-sense reforms is difficult.

Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple is a board-certified family and integrative medicine doctor in the North Shore area of Chicago. She also served as the former chairwoman of Illinois’ Medical Cannabis Advisory Board.

Like Santiago, Temple said Illinois should expand its medical cannabis program to help those who need it most.

“With the limited number of conditions that are allowed, we’re losing a number of patients who would benefit from it but don’t qualify,” Temple said. “We’re losing opportunities to help reduce opioid addiction.”

Unfortunately, typical statehouse politics reared its ugly head. The advisory board that Temple chaired was dissolved in the spring as part of a deal between Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative leaders. The agreement extended the medical marijuana pilot program by three years and added two new qualifying conditions, but it’s all but halted efforts to get more help to more people.

Among the board’s responsibilities was to review requests to add specific ailments to the state’s qualifying list and make recommendations on those requests. There’s no new board handling those reviews now, so adding more qualifying conditions is on hold.

“Everything is in limbo,” Temple said.

And yet the state’s opioid crisis worsens, and thousands of Illinoisans who otherwise might be helped by medical cannabis remain in limbo as well.

“Medical cannabis is my source of medicine. Not only has it helped me in my recovery efforts, it’s given me a voice. It’s given me myself again,” Santiago said. “I am so grateful it is a program here. I just wish more people had access.”

• Dan McCaleb is news director of Illinois News Network and the digital hub ILNews.org. Email Dan with comments at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.

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