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Health Dept. reports significant enrollment in medical cannabis program for intractable pain

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Medical cannabis
Medical marijuana, in pill and oil form, offered by Minnesota Medical Solutions.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Nearly 500 pain patients joined Minnesota's medical cannabis program in July, the first month they could do so after intractable pain was added to the state's list of qualifying medical conditions last year. It's the highest number of patients certified by the state in a single month. 

The Minnesota Department of Health says it has increased staffing at its call center to handle the hundreds of additional calls it has been receiving about the program.

The agency says it certified 481 intractable pain patients in the first month of enrollment. Those patients can begin receiving medical marijuana on Aug. 1 at one of the state's eight cannabis patient centers. Intractable pain is defined as pain that cannot be resolved by other medical treatments.

Dr. Tom Arneson, research manager in the Office of Medical Cannabis, described the July enrollment numbers as "substantial." But he said the bump was expected based on the volume of pain patients using medical marijuana in other states.

"In most programs chronic pain is like 80 or 90 percent of the patients," said Arneson.

But he say that doesn't mean that Minnesota's program will grow as much as medical marijuana programs in other states.

Minnesota has tight restrictions on who qualifies for the medication and the forms of medical marijuana are also limited; it only comes in pill or liquid form - not as a plant for smoking or as an edible product.

Many physicians have also been reluctant to join the certification program, in part because medical marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. The Minnesota Department of Health says so far, 625 physicians have signed up for the program.  

Pain specialist Dr. Matthew Thorson is one of them. He says many physicians worry that their patients will get addicted to medical marijuana.

"Sometimes these people get pegged as drug seekers, and that's really not it," said Thorson. "They're just seeking relief."

He says his clinic in Edina has been bombarded with medical marijuana inquiries in the past month.

"Web hits, cold calls to our office, emails from other providers, all that has really increased substantially," said Thorson. "It's really gone beyond what I initially expected. We've seen just a massive amount of interest in this."

Thorson, co-owner of Advanced Spine & Pain Clinics of Minnesota, estimates that 60 percent of those inquiries are from patients who have intractable pain. 

The state's two suppliers of medical cannabis say the July enrollment numbers are encouraging. 

Kyle Kingsley, chief executive at Minnesota Medical Solutions, says his company plans to expand hours at some of its four dispensaries. But he says it's still too early to talk about reducing prices. 

"We need to see several hundred more patients before we can start having that conversation," said Kingsley.

The high cost of medical marijuana has been a significant drag on Minnesota's program. Insurers won't cover the cost, so patients must pay for their medication out of pocket. Costs can run from a couple hundred dollars to more than $1,000 a month.

In Minnesota's first 13 months of operating its medical cannabis program more than 1800 patients have been approved to receive the drugs. That's still a long way from very early program estimates that suggested as many as 5000 patients would join the program.

But the Health Department's Arneson says the program may get there someday.

"Even before the addition of intractable pain the numbers have kept growing steadily, pretty much linear, just steady every week," said Arneson. "And I'm anticipating that will continue."