At Issue: Cannabis As An Opioid Alternative, Future Of Marijuana Industry

Lisa Fielding
March 08, 2019 - 10:02 am
Jason Erkes, Chief Communications Officer, Cresco Labs and John Sullivan, Senior  Vice President Cresco Labs, MedMar Executive Vice President

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

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CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Medical Marijuana is big business. In fact, it's one of the fastest growing industries in the country.

"In Illinois alone there are 20 growers, 58 dispensaries and more than 54,000 people enrolled in the program," said Jason Erkes, Chief Communications Officer, Cresco Labs, which is based in Chicago and operates in seven states.

"We are one of the largest growers and retailers of medical cannabis here in Illinois. We have three grow facilities. One in Joliet, one in Kankakee, one in Lincoln, Illinois and we own five dispensaries around the state."

Cresco manufactures medical products from the plants, to pills, to products, to patches to edibles to topical lotions.

Illinois legalized medical marijuana in 2015.

"There are 40 conditions in Illinois approved for cannabis use," said John Sullivan, Senior Vice President Cresco Labs, MedMar Executive Vice President. "The biggest change that has happened is now you can get cannabis instead of opiates."

Illinois legislators in 2017 created one of the U.S.'s first programs to allow patients currently taking opioids for pain to legally substitute medical marijuana. On Feb. 1, 2019, patients were allowed to register for the Illinois Opioid Alternative Pilot Program.

Cresco Labs marijuana cultivation conveyor
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Patients registering for the program require a physician's certification that they are already taking or could take an opioid for pain, and do not have one of the 40 conditions currently qualifying for registration in the Illinois medical marijuana program.

"Illinois doesn't have chronic pain as on of the conditions. We were really looking for a way for people to get pain relief and get off opiates. Any person who is being prescribed an opiate, doesn't have to take them anymore. It's a huge development," Sullivan said.

More than 15,500 Illinois residents overdosed on prescription or opioids in 2017, with 2,202 suffering fatal overdoses, according to a new report by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

"In places where there are robust medical cannabis programs, there are fewer deaths from opioids. Illinois is leading the nation in this idea," Sullivan said.

Jason Erkes, Chief Communications Officer, Cresco Labs and John Sullivan, Senior  Vice President Cresco Labs, MedMar Executive Vice President with WBBM Newsradio's Lisa Fielding on At Issue
WBBM Newsradio/Shannon Blum

"What we hear from patients is now they have access to something that don't have those harmful side effects, it's non-addictive, they can get through their workday and relieve their pain at the same time. It's enhancing their quality of life," Erkes said.

Erkes predicted that the opioid alternative program could quadruple the number of patients currently enrolled in the Illinois medical marijuana plan.

"We want to normalize and professionalized the industry. This opioid alternative program opens a whole new world for those who need it most," he said.

Cresco Labs packaged marijuana
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Illinois lawmakers have been working on a proposal to legalize cannabis for more than a year, but both Erkes and Sullivan agree that recreational legalization can come sooner than later.

"We're excited about it. It has a potential to a lot of good here in Illinois. We believe in safe, regulated and tested cannabis marketplace and Illinois has really lead the way with a safe market," Sullivan said.

"We have the ability to set the model for the country. The new rec market has the ability to have a great impact on social justice and tax revenue, to put the cannabis money back into neighborhoods hit hard by the drug trade. There are a lot of exciting social justice aspects that cannabis can now help change. It's a win-win situation. It can be good for the state monetarily, for people from the social justice perceptive and it can be safe and regulated."

Jason Erkes, Chief Communications Officer, Cresco Labs on At Issue
WBBM Newsradio/Shannon Blum

Legal cannabis could generate up to $400 million in tax revenue.

"A new study says current growers in Illinois could launch an adult use rec program nearly immediately and supply the demand while the program is ramping up. Having a governor, a speaker of the house and two Chicago Mayoral candidates support adult use, it's just a matter of time. Adult use is on the fast track to passing," Erkes said.

A bill to legalize marijuana recreationally in Illinois could come as early as April.

The grow room at Cresco Labs.
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Opponents of the bill say they want to work with lawmakers to minimize the danger from people driving while high, and they want funding to train local police on recognizing drugged driving.

On Thursday, the group "Smart Approaches to Marijuana" held a rally in Springfield. They said legalizing the drug could put children in danger.

Despite the group's claims, 12 of 13 states that have legalized marijuana report that they have actually seen no increase in usage among youth.

Governor JB Pritzker's new budget proposal is banking on the state collecting at least $170 million in licensing fees for dispensaries this year. Each license would cost $100,000.