Pubdate: Tue, 06 Sep 2016
Source: Minneapolis Star-Tribune (MN)
Copyright: 2016 Star Tribune
Author: Jennifer Brooks


Minnesotans seeking pain relief have quickly become the 
second-largest group of patients in the state's medical marijuana 
program, even though they became eligible just one month ago.

One out of three patients enrolled in the program is seeking relief 
from chronic pain, according to figures released this week by the 
Office of Medical Cannabis.

The Minnesota Department of Health added intractable pain to the 
shortlist of qualifying conditions for the program on Aug. 1. By Aug. 
31, there were more pain patients - 847 - than patients with cancer, 
epilepsy and terminal illnesses combined.

Researchers will be watching the enrollment trends carefully. 
Minnesota, like much of the nation, is battling an epidemic of opioid 
overdoses, and some studies have found that overdose deaths tend to 
drop sharply in states that offer cannabis as an alternative to 
prescription narcotics.

Because the federal government still considers marijuana a dangerous 
drug with no medical value, research into its use for pain relief is 
limited in this country, but a recent survey of patients in 
Minnesota's program found that 90 percent reported some relief from the drug.

Despite the surge in pain patients, Minnesota's program continues to 
struggle, one year after the state legalized medical marijuana. 
Prices are high, enrollment remains low and the two companies that 
grow and sell all of Minnesota's legal marijuana lost millions of 
dollars in their first year in business.

Those companies are hoping that pain patients - who make up the bulk 
of medical cannabis customers in other states that have legalized - 
will give Minnesota's small, strictly regulated program a boost. 
Patients, in turn, are hoping that an influx of new customers will 
help drive down prices that have forced some people out of the 
program and have discouraged others from joining at all.

"I'm tired. I'm sick. I shouldn't need to be here begging for 
dignity, begging for access," Cassie Traun said during a hearing of 
the state's medical cannabis task force this week. "This program is 
an illusion of a functioning medical cannabis program."

Traun, who uses cannabis to treat her Crohn's disease, a painful and 
often debilitating inflammatory bowel disease, enrolled in the 
program but dropped out because of the cost. She told the lawmakers, 
patients, law enforcement and medical experts who make up the task 
force that it would cost her thousands of dollars a month to buy her 
medicine legally, so she has returned to buying it off the street.

Two state-sanctioned medical marijuana manufacturers, Minnesota 
Medical Solutions (MinnMed) and LeafLine Labs, spent millions of 
dollars setting up their operations and lost millions more in the 
program's first rocky year.

"The thing that keeps me up at night is the pricing," Dr. Kyle 
Kingsley, CEO of MinnMed, told the task force. In 2015, MinnMed 
invested $5 million in its operations - which now include a growing 
and processing facility in Otsego and clinics in Minneapolis, 
Rochester, Bloomington and Moorhead. The company operated at a $3 
million loss last year.

Minnesota has one of the smallest and most tightly regulated medical 
cannabis programs in the nation. Lawmakers placed stringent limits on 
who could buy cannabis, where they could buy it, and in what form. To 
enroll with the Office of Medical Cannabis, patients need a doctor to 
certify that they have one of 10 serious medical conditions - and 
many doctors have balked at certifying patients to use a drug that is 
still banned at the federal level.

There are just eight cannabis clinics in the state, some open just a 
few days a month and all of them located hours away from patients in 
some outstate areas. Marijuana can be sold only in pill or liquid 
form, not in the smokable plant form, and the price of a month's 
supply can range from under $100 to well over $1,000, depending on 
the patient and the condition.

Manufacturers are banking on pain patients - as well as other 
conditions the Health Department may add in the future - to keep the 
program afloat.

Medical marijuana has been legalized in half the states now, and in 
most of them, it's a booming industry. Legal medical and recreational 
marijuana sales topped $5.4 billion in 2015, according to an analysis 
by ArcView Group, which tracks the cannabis industry. In most states 
with cannabis programs, pain patients make up the bulk of the customer base.

As pain patients join the medical cannabis program, the Health 
Department is already debating which conditions might be next.

There are nine possibilities for the coming year, all suggested by 
the public: autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, arthritis, 
diabetes, amputated limbs, EhlersDanlos syndrome, insomnia, 
schizophrenia and treatment-resistant depression.

Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger will have the final say about which 
conditions, if any, are added to the program in 2017.

For more information about Minnesota's medical cannabis program and 
upcoming public hearings, visit
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom