Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger could have taken the easy way out when it came to a recent high-profile decision on medical marijuana: whether to add "intractable pain" to the state's narrow list of conditions for which treatment with the controversial drug is approved.
State lawmakers, who passed Minnesota's medical marijuana law in 2014, punted on the question, delegating it to Ehlinger. A state panel, one consisting of medical doctors and other stakeholders, recently recommended against the move, citing the need for more research.
But on Wednesday, Ehlinger made a call both courageous and compassionate. The commissioner, a medical doctor, greenlighted medical marijuana's use for intractable pain. In doing so, he heeded the pleas of hundreds of Minnesotans who fear the risks of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin or have not found relief through them. The move, as the Star Tribune Editorial Board has argued repeatedly, is also a logical step to combat the growing number of deaths linked to powerful opioid painkillers.
Ehlinger's decision brings to 10 the number of state-approved conditions for medical marijuana treatment. Beginning next August, Minnesota doctors will able to prescribe the drug in pill, liquid or vapor form for those suffering from incurable pain. The other conditions include AIDS, Crohn's disease, Tourette syndrome, glaucoma and cancer, or another terminal illness causing wasting disease.
In his Wednesday announcement, Ehlinger duly noted the state panel's caution about the lack of high-quality clinical evidence about medical marijuana's benefits and risks. But he also noted that "pain management remains a significant challenge for many patients."
His decision strikes a reasonable balance, particularly when decades of "reefer madness" politics has scared off scientific researchers and continues to make large studies unlikely. In the meantime, pain-wracked Minnesotans and their physicians will have another option to try when other treatments fail.
Ehlinger also correctly noted that Minnesota's medical marijuana system has built-in safeguards to prevent recreational use or abuse. Medical providers must prescribe it. The drug is not allowed to be smoked. And, there are two reputable Minnesota companies that are providing the drug here, ensuring quality control and also acting as a brake on recreational use.
Ehlinger's timing is appropriate, as well. Last weekend, the Star Tribune reported that deaths from prescription and illegal opioids such as heroin have risen nearly sixfold since 2000, reaching 317 last year. In late November, the state Department of Human Services launched a work group to respond to what officials termed a "crisis" in prescription painkiller overuse and abuse.
Medical marijuana may be a critical part of the strategy to combat this deadly trend. An October 2014 study published in a leading medical journal found that states' medical marijuana laws were associated with a 25 percent lower annual rate of overdose deaths from opioid medications.
More study is definitely needed to explore this correlation. But action is also needed to prevent tragedies right now. Allowing medical marijuana for intractable pain is a reasonable step to help slow this overdose scourge.