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Minnesota medical marijuana: What you need to know

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Medical marijuana sold in MN will be smoke-free
Only smoke-free medical marijuana, sold as pills, oils or tinctures, will be available for qualifying patients. Tuesday, May 5, 2015 at Minnesota Medical Solutions in Otsego.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file

Minnesota lawmakers approved a medical marijuana bill in 2014 that legalizes the limited use of some forms of medical marijuana. On June 1, 2015 patients could begin the process of becoming certified to buy the drug.

Is it legal to smoke pot now?

No.

Is it legal to smoke pot with a prescription?

No. By July 1, 2015, patients certified by the state can take cannabis in pill, oil and liquid form.

How do you become eligible to use medical marijuana?

A physician or health care practitioner certifies that you have been diagnosed with one of nine qualifying medical conditions, such as cancer, glaucoma or epilepsy.    But the doctor's only role is to certify that patients have a qualifying condition. Then, patients can apply to enroll in the medical cannabis registry and will receive notice that they are on the eligible list. The state expects 5,000 people initially to sign up.

Where does a patient get medical marijuana?

At one of eight distribution centers across Minnesota. The first two will open in Minneapolis and Eagan. Pharmacists at the centers will consult with patients to determine the dosage. Dr. Tom Arneson, research manager at the state's Office of Medical Cannabis,  reviewed the published research on medical marijuana, which will initially guide dosages. 

Who grows the medical marijuana?

Minnesota Medical Solutions in Otsego and LeafLine Labs in Cottage Grove. LeafLine was founded by two emergency medicine physicians, members of the Bachman family and executives from Theraplant, a Connecticut-based medical cannabis manufacturer. Minnesota Medical Solutions is a locally owned, physician-led group composed of doctors, pharmacists, scientists, greenhouse operators, building contractors, educators and others. Two other independent labs will test the drug for potency and for potential contaminants.

What will it cost?

There is no published price list for medical marijuana. Minnesota Medical Solutions estimated it would cost $300 to $500 per month, none of which can be covered by insurance. Just to remain on the registry a patient must pay a $200 annual fee, with discounts for those with qualifying low incomes.

Why is this so complicated?

Marijuana is legal in some form in 24 states but prescribing and distributing it is still illegal on a federal level. The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, like heroin, with "no currently accepted medical use." 

Will the feds crack down?

          Probably not. A 2013 memo from former Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole indicates that cracking down on state-regulated pot businesses would not be a federal priority.  

But a pharmacist who prescribes medical marijuana would be in violation of federal drug laws. And a pharmacy could also lose its right to distribute legal controlled substances if it sold medical marijuana.

That's why the state set up a highly regulated workaround system where the pharmacists giving patients marijuana will probably be dispensing only marijuana. There are similar complications for legal and financial companies working with medical marijuana manufacturers.  

Will police know you are on the medical marijuana state registry?

In most cases, not. Federal and state authorities are prohibited from accessing the patient registry unless they  have valid search warrant.

Are there any remaining questions?

Oh, yes. Legal, financial and health-related gray areas abound. 

For starters, pharmacists don't usually decide how much medication a patient should receive. A doctor usually does that. And they usually base that dosage on a lot of research — and there's not much of that yet.

For another example of the many complications, consider hospitals. State law changed this year, allowing hospitals to give medical marijuana to patients. But they can't obtain the drug. Patients or families will have to bring their own. Hospitals are still figuring out how to allow pot in their facilities without clashing with federal drug enforcement.

Minnesota has set up a highly-regulated system for manufacturers, but it's still hard to operate as a business when the product is illegal. Medical marijuana makers had trouble finding banks to work with, even though the U.S. Department of Treasury offered guidelines to banks in 2014 for working with state-licensed marijuana companies. 

And there are all sorts of questions for people who might want to work with medical marijuana makers. One Minneapolis attorney who simply advises a medical marijuana company had to petition a state board that oversees attorneys to make sure his advice wouldn't jeopardize his law license.

Reporting from MPR News' Tim Nelson, Matt Sepic and Lorna Benson contributed to this report. Other sources include the Minnesota Health Department's Medical Cannabis program.