Employee & Community Health

What do you know about medical marijuana?

4/16/2018 by Sonya Peters, PA-C

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Although prescribing it has been legal in Minnesota since July 2015, ask most people what they know about medical marijuana and the answer typically is, "Not much." The answers to these frequently asked questions should give you an overview about what it is, what it's used to treat, how to register and more. Remember, medical marijuana is not legal in all states; this information pertains to Minnesota. 

What is medical marijuana?

Also known as medical cannabis, medical marijuana is made form the dried leaves and buds of the Cannabis sativa plant. It can be inhaled, eaten in food, taken as a pill or administered as an oil or nasal spray. It is prescribed to ease pain, nausea and other side effects of medical treatments, and treat some diseases. Its effects may begin taking effect within 30 minutes or hours. 

What conditions can be treated with medical marijuana?

In Minnesota, medical marijuana can be prescribed to treat: 

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Anorexia due to HIV/AIDS
  • Chronic pain
  • Crohn's disease
  • Epilepsy or seizures
  • Glaucoma, although the American Academy of Ophthalmology doesn't recommend medical marijuana
  • Multiple sclerosis or severe muscle spasms
  • Nausea, vomiting or severe wasting associated with cancer treatment
  • Terminal illness
  • Tourette Syndrome

Beginning August 1, autism and obstructive sleep apnea will be added to this list. 

What do I have to do to be treated with medical marijuana?

Start by having a conversation with your health care provider to determine if medical marijuana might be right for you. For many patients, especially those with chronic pain who have tried everything from surgery to physical therapy, medical marijuana may give them the pain relief they need. However, it is still a drug and has side effects. Short- and long-term effects include:

  • Addiction, which occurs in about 10% of users who start smoking marijuana before age 25
  • Breathing problems, for people who smoke marijuana
  • Dizziness
  • Impaired concentration and memory
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased risk of heart attack or stroke
  • Mental illness in people with a tendency toward it
  • Negative drug-to-drug interactions
  • Slower reaction times
  • Withdrawal symptoms

If medical marijuana seems to be a good option for you, your provider will certify that you have a qualifying condition with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). You then will need to register. You can find more details about the process on the MDH site. There is a $200 annual registration fee, although you may qualify for a reduced fee. 

Where will I get treatment?

You will need to go to one of eight Cannabis Patient Centers in Minnesota; there is one in Rochester. At the center, a pharmacist will review your records and recommend a specific dosage and type of cannabis. 

How much does medical marijuana cost? 

The cost for your prescription will vary based on the type, quantity and other factors. Currently, health insurance plans don't cover medical marijuana, so this will be an out-of-pocket expense for you. 

Does it work?

While medical marijuana is still considered experimental, since becoming legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, more studies are being conducted on its effectiveness. According to a new study by the MDH, 42% of Minnesota patients taking medical cannabis for intractable pain reported pain reduction of 30% or more. Another benefit: Of the 353 patients who said they had been taking opioids when they started medical marijuana therapy, 63% eliminated or reduced opioid use after six months. In my own practice, patients have been very happy with the results. 

Where can I learn more?

These sites are good resources for information about medical marijuana:

Sonya Peters is a physician assistant with Employee and Community Health’s (ECH) Division of Community Internal Medicine (CIM) at Mayo Family Clinic Northwest. Her areas of special interest are women's health and procedural medicine.