Minnesota OKs Medical Cannabis For Chronic Pain, Eye Disease

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Minnesota Medical Solutions employee Guy Lindblom walks through a greenhouse filled with plants at one of the state's two manufacturers of medical marijuana in Otsego. Photo: Jennifer Simonson for MPR News

Minnesota regulators on Monday unveiled a big expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program, adding chronic pain and age-related macular degeneration to the list of conditions that can qualify for treatment.

The state Health Department also said it would allow more sites where patients can access medical cannabis.

The changes take effect in August.

Minnesota’s medical marijuana program began in 2014 and has been gradually adding conditions that can be treated with cannabis. Originally, only nine conditions made the cut. Now the list is much longer, from obstructive sleep apnea to post traumatic stress disorder to cancer.

Sensible Change Minnesota, a group trying to change marijuana policy in Minnesota, sought the addition of chronic pain. Maren Schroeder, policy director for the group, said Monday’s move is significant.

“The Legislature still has work to do to make this into a functioning program but this was probably the biggest steps the administration could take to do so,” Schroeder said.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the conditions that were added give more people more ways to deal with debilitating illness.

“Minnesota’s medical cannabis program tracks patient experiences so we can learn about the real-world benefits and downsides of using medical cannabis for various conditions,” she said in a statement.

Malcolm added, “The bottom line is that people suffering from these serious conditions may be helped by participating in the program, and we felt it was important to give them the opportunity to seek that relief.”

A doctor’s diagnosis of chronic pain will be required. It could be easier to certify than intractable pain, which was added to the program a few years ago.

State health officials said that they expected the chronic pain condition might provide a sizable boost in the number of patients potentially eligible for certification to participate in the program — and potentially add thousands of new participants.

State officials declined to estimate how many that might be.

“We do know that 20 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers from chronic pain, and so we could apply those numbers to Minnesota’s population, and of course it would be a smaller subset of folks that would be even interested in trying our program,” said acting program director Chris Tholkes.

Sensible Change’s Schroeder said doctors have been hesitant to certify intractable pain cases because that carries a specific legal definition by which pain cannot be removed but only managed and other options have failed to achieve results.

“This will give doctors a little more comfort in getting their pain patients into this program as well as helping those patients qualify,” Schroeder said.

People petitioned to include the new conditions this summer and those requests were reviewed by a citizens’ panel and Health Department staff. Four conditions were rejected: anxiety, insomnia, psoriasis and traumatic brain injury.

As of October, there were nearly 18,000 patients certified for the state’s medical marijuana program. Minnesota’s program is still considered relatively restrictive because patients are not legally allowed to get marijuana in leaf form or ingest it through smoking.

Pills, vapors, topical ointments and liquid gels had been the only forms people could obtain through licensed manufacturers. Starting next summer, new delivery methods will include water-soluble cannabinoid, such as powders or sprinkles, and orally dissolvable products such as lozenges, gums, mints and tablets. Edible forms, such as gummies and baked goods remain illegal under state law.

In addition, the two licensed manufacturers — Leafline Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions — will be allowed to open a combined eight more centers in Minnesota. The agency said the proposed centers are in Blaine, Burnsville, Duluth, Golden Valley, Mankato, Rogers, Willmar and Woodbury. The additions also allow each of the two state chartered providers to expand into the Congressional districts they weren’t allowed when the program first opened for sales in 2015.

That will end regional exclusivity for distributors, Tholkes said, “so that there is consumer choice in the district.”

The shifts come as state lawmakers prepare again to debate broader cannabis legalization. The marijuana bills up for discussion next year would remove criminal penalties for recreational use and regulate a sales market.

The DFL-controlled House is seen as more receptive to a legal marijuana system than the Republican-led Senate, where a bill stalled last session.