State officials will hold off for another year on deciding whether to expand Minnesota's new medical marijuana program to residents suffering chronic pain.
The move could someday extend the potentially potent medicine to tens of thousands more Minnesota residents and dramatically increase business for the state's two medical marijuana manufacturers.
• December 2014: Minnesota's first medical pot makers get the OK to get growing
But the state is waiting until next year to make the call. Officials say it could overextend manufacturers as they rush to launch the program this summer. That means patients with chronic pain won't be able to get medical marijuana until August 2016 at the earliest, if ever.
The updated timetable was posted this week on the Department of Health's website and confirmed by The Associated Press.
Manny Munson-Regala, an assistant commissioner leading the rollout of medical marijuana, said they "didn't see a way to do this in a thoughtful, structured way" in time to make the medicine available for pain treatment this year.
State lawmakers passed a law last year legalizing limited forms of medical marijuana for a handful of serious conditions like cancer and AIDS. But their bill left open the question of providing marijuana to those with chronic pain, giving the health commissioner until July 2016 to make a ruling.
News of the decision to wait another year disappointed Sen. Branden Petersen, an Andover Republican with a bill that would OK chronic pain for medical marijuana starting July 1. Peterson said he didn't buy the concern that manufacturers couldn't cope with the expanded demand.
"I don't see why we need to wait that long," he said. "If we acted this session, we could do something that would serve the interests of those patients a lot sooner."
The state will now take its time. A new panel weighing the question will start meeting this spring with the goal of finalizing their recommendation to Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger in December, according to the group's timeline.
To make marijuana available to chronic pain patients by August 2016, Ehlinger would have to move to add it as a qualifying condition by Jan. 15 of that year — the law requires the health commissioner to act by that date to give lawmakers time to block a new condition from being added. A delay could add another year.
Chronic pain has been the biggest source of patients in states with medical marijuana nationwide — more than 90 percent of registrants in Colorado were prescribed the drug due in part to severe pain.
In Minnesota, the state expects about 5,000 patients to sign up for medical marijuana under its current rules. The state doesn't have a firm grasp on how that would increase with chronic pain, but Munson-Regala noted it could be enormous. A recent report pegged the number of Minnesota residents being treated for chronic pain at about 88,000, he said.
LeafLine Labs, one of Minnesota's two medical marijuana producers, is focused on gearing up to serve the patients who currently qualify for the program, co-founder Andrew Bachman said Tuesday. But Bachman said the company is eager to find better ways to serve patients suffering from other ailments, including chronic pain.