Some medical marijuana backers back out of Minnesota program

  • Article by: PATRICK CONDON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2014 - 5:41 AM

Patients who lobbied for the new law won’t participate in test because of plant marijuana prohibition.

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Patrick McClellan, a 47-year-old Bloomington resident, treats severe pain from muscular dystrophy by vaporizing plant marijuana he buys illegally. He doesn’t think he will participate in the new state program because it will not allow the use of plant marijuana.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Cassie Traun, a 24-year-old IT worker from St. Paul, went to the Capitol about a dozen times in April and May to lobby for medical marijuana.

She sat before committees of lawmakers, and even confessed to buying and using the drug illegally because she’s convinced it effectively treats her Crohn’s disease.

This week Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign a bill legalizing marijuana for about 5,000 Minnesotans, including sufferers of Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease.

But Minnesota’s new law will not allow patients to possess or smoke marijuana in its plant form. For that reason, Traun and some of the medical users who fought hardest for the laws passage, have decided they won’t participate in the new state program.

“They’re asking me to remain a criminal if I want to continue the treatment plan that I like, and that my doctor approves of,” Traun said.

Her plan for now is to keep buying marijuana from a black market dealer.

Under Minnesota’s new law, eligible patients will be able to use marijuana only in oil or liquid forms. Some patients like Traun worry that marijuana-based oils are more potent and likely to intoxicate than are the plant’s leaves and buds — a concern backed up by experts.

By denying patients access to plants, and prohibiting smoking of the drug, Minnesota will be unique as it becomes the 22nd U.S. state to legalize marijuana as a treatment for some afflictions. While the wider medical community remains split over the benefits of medical marijuana, several prominent doctors who have made the medicinal qualities of the cannabis plant a focus of their work are skeptical about the details of Minnesota’s program.

State program ‘different’

“All the other medical cannabis programs in the country are going to be watching what happens in Minnesota very carefully, because it’s so different and unique,” said Dr. Steven Jenison, a physician who was the first medical director of New Mexico’s seven-year-old program and later chaired its medical advisory board. “There are aspects that are intriguing, but also aspects that a lot of us consider to be a bit mystifying.”

Cannabis-based liquids are common for treating children with severe epileptic seizures; certain compounds of the plant are mixed with olive oil and administered orally. Parents of some of those children were among the most visible lobbyists for Minnesota’s law.

But adult patients with conditions including Crohn’s and other diseases also lobbied hard for the bill. Many wanted access to the medicinal qualities of the whole plant. When the active ingredient is extracted and condensed, it becomes a substance known on the black market as “hash oil.” That oil can then be loaded into a vaporizer, where it is heated to a point short of combustion, then inhaled.

“A lot of patients dose the plant in minimal amounts. They’re not trying to get high, they’re trying to achieve symptom control,” said Dr. Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist who has been conducting research at the University of Arizona into marijuana’s possible benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers. “Why would they subject themselves to something far more toxic, something much more likely to make them intoxicated?”

Oil issues

Sisley said that anecdotal reports from users of the oil have found “reports of altered mental states, feeling emotionally blunted, zombielike.” Lack of formal research has also meant little reliable information on what constitutes a safe, effective dose.

Traun was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 16. The disease causes inflammation of the intestinal lining, which frequently leads to abdominal pain, bouts of nausea, severe diarrhea, weight loss and malnutrition.

For several years after diagnosis, Traun tried a series of pharmaceuticals that included steroids, a drug called Imuran used to help prevent transplant patients from rejecting new kidneys, and finally Remicade, an antibody partly produced from mouse DNA. None delivered long-lasting benefits and some had brutal side effects.

During her freshman year in college, Traun’s symptoms worsened. For several months, she couldn’t keep food down and survived on a liquid diet. She lost 30 pounds.

  • related content

  • Medical Marijuana passage in Minnesota

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    Minnesota will become the only medical marijuana state that forbids smoking as a form of treatment and that would bar access to the drug in plant form.

  • Patrick McClellan prepared to treat severe pain from muscular dystrophy by vaporizing plant marijuana. McClellan says he uses the illegal drug because it always works and does so within 90 seconds.

  • McClellan used the marijuana to get relief from the severe pain of powerful muscle spasms. Still, McClellan says he is no pot head.

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