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Minnesota OKs medical marijuana for autism, apnea

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Marijuana plants are grown at LeafLine Labs
Marijuana plants are grown at LeafLine Labs in Cottage Grove, Minn. Wednesday, June 17, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News file

Starting in July, autism spectrum disorders and obstructive sleep apnea will qualify as conditions eligible to be treated in Minnesota with medical cannabis, the state Health Department said Thursday.

The two conditions were chosen as part of the department's regular review of requests to expand the use of medical cannabis. Petitioners sought authority for 10 conditions this year, including anxiety disorders, dementia, liver disease, Parkinson's disease, apnea and autism.

State health officials backed cannabis for autism after their review found a "lack of effective drug treatments, the potentially severe side effects of current drug treatments and anecdotal evidence of Minnesota children with autism already receiving benefits from medical cannabis taken for other qualifying conditions," the Health Department said in a statement.

"Any policy decisions about cannabis are difficult due to the relative lack of published scientific evidence. However, there is increasing evidence for potential benefits of medical cannabis for those with severe autism and obstructive sleep apnea," Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said in the statement.

Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by "sustained social impairments in communication and interactions, and repetitive behaviors, interests or activities," the department noted.

With obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder involving repeated episodes of reduced airflow caused by a complete or partial collapse of the upper airway during sleep, the agency said its research "identified some scientific evidence of effectiveness of cannabis treatments. Continuous positive airway pressure is a very effective treatment already in use, but people with the condition often struggle to stick with that therapy."

Under current state rules, patients certified to have autism or obstructive sleep apnea will be newly eligible to enroll in the program on July 1 and receive medical cannabis from the state's two medical cannabis manufacturers beginning Aug. 1. As with the program's other qualifying conditions, patients will need advance certification from a Minnesota health care provider. 

Minnesota lawmakers passed one of the strictest medical marijuana laws in the country in 2014, limiting the conditions that qualify for the program and banning the use of medical cannabis in plant form.

The law included nine medical conditions that would qualify a person to receive medical cannabis and gave the state health commissioner authority to consider adding other qualifying conditions and delivery methods. Last year, the department added post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of conditions eligible to be treated with medical marijuana. 

Here's the complete list: 

• Cancer associated with severe/chronic pain, nausea or severe vomiting, or cachexia or severe wasting

• Glaucoma

• HIV/AIDS

• Tourette's syndrome

• Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)

• Seizures, including those characteristic of epilepsy

• Severe and persistent muscle spasms, including those characteristic of multiple sclerosis

• Inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn's disease

• Terminal illness, with a probable life expectancy of less than one year

• Intractable pain

• Post-traumatic stress disorder

• Autism spectrum disorders (effective July 1)

• Obstructive sleep apnea (effective July 1)