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Minnesota's medical marijuana clinics opening doors to PTSD patients

Marjuana grows from a nutrient-rich cube inside a cultivation facility at Westgate Industrial Center in Phoenix on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. Ryan Reese, a U.S. Air Force veteran, helped establish the facility and worked as its CEO. He advocates for medical marijuana as an alternative to opiates.

NIKKI WENTLING/STARS AND STRIPES

By JENNIFER BROOKS | Star Tribune - Minneapolis (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 9, 2017

Marine Corps veteran Ed Erdos tried medical marijuana to ease his pain, and found that it also eased his mind.

He enrolled with the Health Department’s Office of Medical Cannabis last year in search of relief from the pain and muscle spasms caused by injuries he suffered in a helicopter crash. But along with pain relief came relief from the anxiety, intrusive thoughts and fear that haunted him for years as a result of service-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It works,” said Erdos, who spent five years “bunkered,” barely able to leave his home. Now, when he visits the bright, airy lobby of the LeafLine Labs patient care center in St. Paul, he wears a big smile under the brim of his Marine Corps hat. He no longer takes any of his old anxiety meds. He has the confidence to get out and visit his buddies at the American Legion and VFW.

The cannabis prescription the pharmacist hands him each week, he said, “has improved my quality of life to the point where I can function on a daily basis.”

Millions of Americans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Minnesota is the latest state to offer medical marijuana as a possible treatment option.

The Minnesota Health Department’s Office of Medical Cannabis opened enrollment to people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder on July 1, and the state’s eight clinics will open their doors to those new patients in August.

Ten PTSD patients applied, and one had been enrolled in the program by the end of the first week, the Health Department reported. But some patients already enrolled in the program, like Erdos, noticed their pain medication had side benefits.

The cannabis oil, he found, offered swift relief to the pain that shot down his damaged spine and knotted his muscles so badly he sometimes dropped to the floor in agony. But Erdos found an unexpected side benefit to the medication the state legalized two years ago -- it seemed to ease the service-related PTSD that had trapped him in his home for nearly five years.

“The best part of PTSD treatment with medical cannabis is, it allows you to slow down. You don’t experience the anxiety attacks,” Erdos said “It allows you to think. It allows you to face some of those triggers that many PTSD victims are afraid to face.”

Erdos hoped that sharing his story would ease the stigma around medical marijuana for other veterans. But the federal government — and federal agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs — still considers marijuana a dangerous, illicit substance with no medical value.

“While some veterans use marijuana to relieve symptoms of PTSD, we believe more research is needed to fully determine the safety or effectiveness of medical cannabis for PTSD,” Larry Shellito, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a statement that echoed the official policy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“MDVA is committed to treating veterans with PTSD,” Shellito added. “At this time we will continue to dialogue with our federal VA partners on this issue. However, there are no plans to move forward with this until more clinical research is available.”

The VA’s National Center for PTSD has warned that there is not enough clinical research to determine whether cannabis is a safe or effective treatment for people suffering in the aftermath of trauma. The Minnesota Medical Association has been leery of the medical marijuana program since it launched two years ago, although more than 900 doctors and other practitioners have enrolled with the Health Department to certify their patients to participate.

The federal ban makes it difficult for U.S. researchers to study cannabis’ effectiveness as a medical treatment. But Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger opted last winter to add it to the shortlist of qualifying conditions for the state’s program, noting that there are currently few other effective treatments available to help PTSD sufferers.

Twenty-two of the 27 states that have legalized medical cannabis include post-traumatic stress as a qualifying condition.

Minnesota runs one of the most tightly regulated medical cannabis programs in the nation. State law limits who can buy, sell and grow the drug, and in what form it can be dispensed. PTSD is the 11th condition added to the program, along with cancer, seizure disorders and intractable pain.

The Health Department is searching for public input about future conditions that should be included in the program. Past suggestions have included schizophrenia, autism and Alzheimer’s — but so far this year, the office has not received any suggestions from the public. The office is accepting public petitions through July 31.

Despite the fact that there are just eight cannabis clinics in Minnesota, enrollment has climbed steadily, topping lawmakers’ modest estimates that 5,000 people might enroll in the program’s first year. As of Friday, there were 6,226 active patients in the program.

That number includes Erdos. After years of struggling to even leave his home, he and his wife loaded their dogs into an RV and headed to the Mississippi Bluffs to go camping for the Fourth of July.

©2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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