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Medical marijuana settles in Minnesota as parties look to the future

The Minnesota Medical Solutions medical cannabis dispensary building in downtown Minneapolis on Wednesday, July 1, 2015. Medical cannabis became legal today for those who meet several qualifying conditions. ROBB JEFFRIES / FORUM NEWS SERVICE.1 / 2
Marijuana plants are seen in an indoor cultivation in Montevideo December 6, 2013. REUTERS/Andres Stapff2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS -- Stakeholders in Minnesota’s push for legalizing medical marijuana took time to acknowledge the law’s debut Wednesday as a success, but there is more work to be done to make the state’s program better.

Ninety patients had been approved by the state’s Department of Health to pick up their medical cannabis on July 1, according to the department’s website. In all, 177 people have been certified by health care professionals and registered in the health department’s system.

Currently, there are two medical cannabis dispensaries open in the state, in Eagan and downtown Minneapolis. Dispensaries in St. Cloud, Rochester, Eden Prairie, St. Paul, Hibbing and Moorhead are expected to open later this summer.

“Working with our many partners, we have fulfilled the task that the legislature put before us a little over a year ago,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said. “Qualified patients now can receive cannabis medications in a controlled, healthcare-like environment, and Minnesota is poised to be a research leader as we expand our understanding of how various medical cannabis formulations may help patients with qualifying conditions.”

Minnesota’s law is considered to be one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country. The state has limited the number of facilities available, the types of marijuana that can be prescribed and the ailments a patient must have to qualify for the program.

Medical marijuana is not available in the smokable leaf form in Minnesota. Instead, patients can use medical cannabis in pill, liquid or vapor form. Those versions do not include the pungent smell the natural leaf form is known for.

These restrictions could ultimately help those who are pro-medical cannabis.

“In other places, loosely controlled medical cannabis laws have too often resulted in irresponsible cure-all claims, inconsistent dosing of highly variable raw plant material and loopholes that have promoted non-medical uses,” said Dr. Kyle Kingsley, CEO of Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of two medical cannabis companies in the state. “But the Minnesota model keeps us all focused on what matters -- helping patients suffering from qualifying conditions access precise, pure and customized medicines.”

Minnesota Medical Solutions saw 22 patients on its first day at the Minneapolis dispensary, spokesman Joe Loveland said.

Patrick McClellan, a patient advocate for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care -- and a user of medical cannabis himself -- said the long process to getting medical cannabis in Minnesota is not yet over, both for policy and for the patients themselves.

“Like with any other medication, there will be some tweaks to it. There will be some time for patients to get used to the medication,” McClellan said. “This is something we have fought for for a very long time, and some of those who fought for it passed away before they could experience it. That’s why it’s important for us to continue the fight, and get more people and more illnesses qualified.”

Currently, all medical cannabis does not qualify to be covered by medical insurance. But McClellan is hopeful the careful Minnesota model can help open that door in the future.

“The way MinnMed is approaching this is the route that will need to happen for insurance companies to cover this,” he said.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said bills to expand medical marijuana use can be expected during the 2016 legislative session that begins March 8. But, he added, Minnesota needs to give the new law a chance to work before knowing for sure how, and if, the law should change.

"We absolutely are going to learn a lot between now and next session," said Daudt, who voted to allow marijuana to be used for medical needs.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he will wait to propose any changes until a group headed by health commissioner Ehlinger releases its recommendations for the next step in medical marijuana. That report is due out in the fall, well before the next Legislature.

However, he said that he is pleased with how the medical marijuana program has rolled out.

"It seems like it has progressed responsibly," he said, comparing it to the problem-filled unveiling of the MNsure health-insurance sales program.

Constant federal changes kept MNsure from a smooth beginning, he said.

Dayton also said he is glad Minnesota did not go too far. He said Colorado's governor told him that state moved too fast and was forced into legalizing recreational marijuana after just seven doctors approved dispensing 90 percent of medical marijuana.

Robb Jeffries

Robb Jeffries is a news coordinator for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota and previously served as a reporter and copy editor for the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him at rjeffries@forumcomm.com and follow him on Twitter at @robbjeffries.

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