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Medical marijuana for kids: A Mayo doctor explains why

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Updated: 12:50 p.m. | Posted: 9:10 a.m.

More than 200 healthcare workers in Minnesota have registered to certify patients to receive medical marijuana under the new program that launched Wednesday. But even doctors who have registered for the program are advising patients to be realistic about their expectations for the medication. 

Dr. Katherine Nickels, a pediatric neurologist at Mayo Clinic who specializes in treating children with epilepsy, said almost all of her patients or their families have already asked her about medical marijuana. 

"I always want to be sure they understand that this is a product with very little research. It's ongoing right now, but the efficacy is not proven," Nickels said. "The majority of information we have is honestly hearsay and some case reports." 

Nickels said she's recommending that patients who haven't yet tried standard treatments give those a shot first. But she said many of her patients are children who haven't responded to standard treatments epilepsy. She's already certified eight patients to receive the medication. 

"It's important to understand it's not a panacea, it's not a cure all by any means, but again it is potentially effective," Nickels said. "I just want them to go in with an open mind and not automatically assume that their child is going to be cured." 

She's moving cautiously partly because there have been few studies on the effectiveness of the medication or on long term effects, specifically for children who are still physically and mentally developing. 

Legal approval for medication normally starts with clinical trials and studies that then lead to approval for medical use. In the case of medical marijuana, it's been the opposite. 

"This is a product the public has tried, some have found it very effective, and they have demanded that it be provided to them from the medical community," Nickels said. "Now we're backpedaling and trying to do the appropriate trials."

Minnesota's medical marijuana is among the strictest in the country. Epilepsy is one of just nine conditions approved for purchase of medical marijuana. The medication will also not be available in plant form like in other states like California, instead only being available in pill, oil or liquid forms. 

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Some potential patients have reported difficulty even finding a doctor who is willing to prescribe the medication. Less than 10 percent of doctors in the state plan to register in the program, according to a survey released last month by the Minnesota Medical Association. 

Even if a patient meets all the conditions to be certified to receive the medication and is able to find a willing doctor, Nickels said cost is the biggest deterrent for patients. Under the state's complex system, a monthly dose could cost about $500, none of which is covered by health insurance.

Patient advocates have already criticized the program for being too restrictive. Gov. Mark Dayton told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer on Wednesday that the state was purposely moving slowly on the program. 

"If somebody can be helped from this treatment, we certainly want to be humane about it and give people the opportunity to improve their lives," Dayton said. "We're going to take one step and see where the results are and see where it goes from here."