Within a year, patients will be lining up to buy medical marijuana legally in Minnesota.
But for the state's scientists, it's still a struggle to do basic research into the plant's medicinal properties.
Kalpna Gupta, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, spent four years entangled in federal paperwork before winning approval to study whether vaporized cannabis was an effective pain relief treatment for patients with sickle cell disease. The research itself will take another four years.
Eight years is "too long," Gupta told members of the Minnesota Legislature's Task Force on Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research on Wednesday afternoon. The university is home to one of only two labs in the United States licensed by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to grow cannabis, and its researchers are studying the drug's effectiveness on debilitating pain from conditions like cancer and sickle cell.
"When I try to do scientific research, social issues get in the way," Gupta told members of the task force, which will be assessing the effect of the state's new medical marijuana program. The 23-member panel is made up of lawmakers, medical and legal experts, law enforcement officials, substance abuse experts and patients.
Minnesota is one of 23 states that have legalized medical marijuana, despite the fact that the federal government still categorizes cannabis as a dangerous drug with no recognized medical value. The state is scrambling to get the new program up and running by next July.
The Department of Health is now accepting applications from entrepreneurs interested in becoming one of the two manufacturers that will grow and refine cannabis for eight retail outlets that will be set up around the state.
Minnesota's medical marijuana law is more narrowly focused than most. Not only will there be fewer places to buy the drug than in many states, but it will be available for sale only in non-smokable forms. The Legislature also limited the number of medical conditions that would permit use of medical cannabis — barring patients suffering from chronic pain and other conditions.
Gupta, however, said preliminary studies indicate that cannabis may provide relief for different types of pain.
Minnesota will allow patients with a host of other illnesses access to marijuana. Approved conditions range from terminal illnesses, to cancer, to seizure disorders.