An employee checks plants at LeafLine Labs, a medical marijuana production facility, in Cottage Grove, Minn., on June 17, 2015. (Jim Mone, Associated Press file)

Minnesota medical marijuana expands to allow pain patients

It's a dramatic change for the highly restricted Minnesota medical marijuana program, which has struggled with low enrollment, leading to high costs for patients

Updated Dec. 2, 2015 at 1:28 p.m.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota health officials will allow residents with intractable pain to buy medical marijuana starting in August, they announced Wednesday in a long-awaited decision that could expand enrollment in the state’s struggling program by thousands of patients.

After months of weighing input, Department of Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger added intractable pain to the small list of qualifying conditions well ahead of a Jan. 1 deadline.

The state’s tight restrictions — the leaf form is still banned, and only two manufacturers make and sell marijuana pills, oils and vapors — made a difficult decision easier, Ehlinger said. That, combined with the stories from people suffering from constant pain, ultimately outweighed the medical community’s concerns that there’s not enough evidence to use medical marijuana to treat pain.

“People with intractable pain, their stories reiterated the fact that we don’t have enough science to keep this medication from people who need it,” he said.

Minnesota will be the 19th of the 24 states where medical marijuana is legal to extend the drug to people with intractable pain — defined in state law as pain that can’t otherwise be treated or cured. Dozens of those would-be patients had urged for it to be approved, eyeing medical marijuana as a possible relief from never-ending headaches or constant pain from back surgeries or car crashes.

It’s also a drastic change for a highly restricted program that has struggled with low enrollment in the nine conditions that currently qualify, leading to big costs for patients. As of Sunday, 760 patients were registered for the program, which was approved in 2014 and started selling the drug July 1. Just how much that number will jump is unclear, though state officials have previously indicated it could double or triple enrollment.

The state’s two manufacturers welcomed the news. LeafLine Labs’ chief executive, Manny Munson-Regala, said the company is planning how to staff for the extra demand and concoct a bevy of new medicines designed to treat patients in pain. Kyle Kingsley, chief executive at Minnesota Medical Solutions, said the addition would eventually allow them to reduce prices for their medicine.

Munson-Regala noted the enrollment bump could eventually be massive — pain patients outnumber all conditions by as much as 10 times in the other medical marijuana states that allow the condition, he said.

Kim Kelsey, whose 24-year-old son Alec is a patient for his seizures, is confident that the expansion will shore up lackluster enrollment, soothing her fears that the program will eventually collapse — and take her son’s medication with it.

“I’m so relieved and happy,” the Excelsior woman said after Ehlinger’s announcement. “We just hoped and prayed that this would get added because … not having enough patients would mean that we wouldn’t be able to get the medicine for our loved ones.”

Wednesday’s decision goes against a recommendation from a panel of medical experts that Ehlinger assembled for advice. They had cited the potential for drug abuse and a lack of solid medical evidence about medical marijuana’s efficacy in treating pain.

That hesitance was clear to current patients early on, finding that many doctors wouldn’t sign off on their participation. But Munson-Regala and state officials said it will be different when intractable pain patients can start registering a month in advance of the Aug. 1 sale date.

“They seem to be getting more comfortable and confident,” Michelle Larson, director of the state’s Office of Medical Cannabis, said of the medical community.

When the Legislature approved medical marijuana, it told Ehlinger that he must to decide whether to add intractable pain as a qualifying condition before considering other disorders. Now, he said, the state is setting up a framework to accept and consider other possible additions next year.

Lawmakers could vote to reverse the commissioner’s decision this spring, but it would have to pass both the Republican-controlled House and the DFL-held Senate.