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Allowing raw cannabis for medical use could cut costs, improve access

Kim Kelsey’s 29-year-old son, Alec, has suffered from life-threatening seizures and cognitive challenges since a near-fatal case of encephalitis as a child.

A CBD tincture — and Minnesota’s medical marijuana program — drastically improved his quality of life with no negative side effects. But the cost of the medication poses a serious financial challenge, costing the family $65,000 in cash over the past five and a half years, she said.

“Anything you can do to help lower the cost … is meaningful,” Kelsey told the House Health Finance and Policy Committee Tuesday.

HF813, sponsored by Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina), would attempt to do just that by modifying the state’s medical cannabis program to allow patients aged 21 or older to use raw cannabis and to permit smoking.

Currently, program participants are only allowed to use more processed, and more expensive cannabis products.

The bill was laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.

A companion, SF803, is sponsored by Sen. Mark Koran (R-North Branch) and awaits action by the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee.

“Minnesota is the only … program in the U.S. that does not allow for plant,” Edelson said. “Right now, it is not affordable, and it is not covered by health insurance.”

The question of whether program participants should be allowed to use raw cannabis is really a question of whether the program should be available to everyone, or just the wealthy, she said.

The proposed changes are expected to reduce the cost of medical cannabis by close to 50%, significantly improving access to the program, Edelson said.

“It’ll lower the prices of all current products and do what the original bill was supposed to do,” said Patrick McClellan, a patient in the program who uses medical cannabis to treat a rare form of muscular dystrophy, along with other painkillers and anti-seizure drugs.

Medical cannabis alone could treat all of his symptoms, but he already has to ration his prescriptions because of the cost and is struggling to keep from going deeper into debt, McClellan said.

“I’m more convinced than ever that cannabis provides a real alternative to opioids and other pharmaceuticals,” said Dr. Kyle Kingsley, CEO of Vireo Health and Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of the state program’s two providers.

The change could also keep people in the program and under the supervision of health care professionals instead of feeding the state’s illicit cannabis market, he said.

Rep. Jeremy Munson (R-Lake Crystal) spoke in favor of the bill, saying that it has both bipartisan support and local support within his district.

Other versions of the proposed legislation were considered last year, and carried by Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake) before that, Edelson said.

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