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A first of its kind program involving medical marijuana and opioids starts Thursday in Illinois. The program lets certain patients substitute medical marijuana for opioids before they are ever even given an opioid prescription.

In August of last year, then Governor Bruce Rauner signed the program into law. It`s called the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program. The goal is to try and reduce opioid overdose deaths in Illinois by giving patients who qualify the option to use medical marijuana instead.

“It is a big deal. It`s been a long time coming. Patients have been waiting for this day,” said Christine Karhliker with HCI Alternatives about the program.

She believes it`s going to be a major breakthrough. HCI was the first medical marijuana dispensary in the metro-east opening in Collinsville back in 2016.

Karhliker expects many new patients on the horizon.

“I think it`s going to make a difference to the people that don`t want to be on opioids and haven`t been able to break away. It`s going to give them some relief and they`re going to realize I don`t have to have this heavy prescription with all these side effects,” said Karhliker.

Here the program specifics. You have to be 21 years old and an Illinois resident. A patient has to be certified by a physician as someone who has or could have received a prescription for opioids but instead can use medical marijuana. Patients also must have a two by two passport-like photo, a copy of their driver`s license or state ID, proof of an Illinois address, and a $10 payment.

Karhliker explained, “The patients in the OAPP program will have to every 90-days have that physician certification entered again. So, if the physician would refill the prescription they can just go in and after visiting with the patient, seeing how they`re doing, certify that diagnosis again and the patient can come back and register.”

Officials with the Illinois Department of Public Health say the new program is groundbreaking because it allows patients to use medical marijuana before they are ever prescribed opioids.

We`re told other states permit people to use medical marijuana instead of opioids only after they have already used opioids.

Dr. David Yablonsky, an Edwardsville internist who has certified patients to get medical marijuana access cards, believes this program could be a big benefit.

“At least we`ll have an opportunity now as physicians to work with patients to try this instead of these dangerous and potent narcotics, you know opioids,” explained Yablonsky.

Karhliker added, “I hope it saves lives and that people come in and have a healthy alternative.”

Patients have to pay $10 for every 90-day registration period that they have access to medical marijuana instead of opioids.

We`re told doctors underwent training for this new program last week and today.

Those with HCI Alternatives say the overall medical marijuana program in Illinois is becoming more streamlined with patients getting quicker access to medical cannabis.

They tell us this latest effort is the next step in patients getting the maximum benefits of medical marijuana.