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Minn. medical cannabis program shows promise for pain relief

"When our medicines are killers of patients who entrusted their lives and care to use, we need to first stop doing that and then we can go from there," says Dr. Andrew Bachman, CEO of LeafLine Labs, one of Minnesota's two medical marijuana providers. "That's why I'm in medicine."

He's talking about prescription opioid painkillers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdoses of these powerful pharmaceuticals, along with their illegal relatives heroin and morphine, killed 338 people in Minnesota in 2015. Tragically, the largest group of victims was people in their late 20s and early 30s.

Is there a better way to deal with chronic pain? Bachman says yes. Last August, intractable pain was added to the small number of qualifying conditions for Minnesota's fledgling medical cannabis program. Now, less than a year later, over 60 percent of medical cannabis patients take the substance for the condition.

Other medical conditions allowed in Minnesota's medical cannabis program include:

  • Cancer
  • Seizures
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Muscle spasms
  • Glaucoma
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Tourette syndrome
  • ALS/Lou Gehrig's disease
  • Terminal illness

Post-traumatic stress disorder will become eligible in August. According to Bachman, there is substantial evidence that medical marijuana will also be helpful for people with Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and autism spectrum disorders.

As of April 13, there were 6,600 approved enrollments in the program and 5,300 active patients. Those are served by only two companies: Bachmann's LeafLine Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions, which is also led by a physician. The industry is not yet profitable, but the addition of major diseases like Parkinson's and autism could change that. Right now, Bachmann says, they're focusing on bringing down patient costs, since medical marijuana isn't covered by most insurance.

The biggest problem medical cannabis may be the stigma itself

The use of marijuana remains highly stigmatized in many circles, despite its promise of easing a number of persistent and otherwise untreatable medical conditions. It remains illegal in North and South Dakota, along with federally. It cannot be purchased on credit card and is not covered by most health insurance. People with certain jobs may not legally be able to use it.

And yet, if it could offer a workable alternative to opioid drugs and heroin, isn't it worth a try?

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