Beginning today, patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, will be allowed to purchase medical marijuana in Minnesota.

Dr. Kyle Kingsley, CEO of Minnesota Medical Solutions, expects a boost in the number of patients in the state's medical cannabis program thanks to the addition of PTSD as a qualifying condition.

"I think it's going to be a pretty modest increase in patient numbers. But the many thousands of folks in Minnesota that suffer from PTSD now have access, and that's a really important step — even if only a few are taking the first steps forward here early in the process," he said.

Minnesota Medical Solutions is one of two licensed manufacturers of medical marijuana in the state. The company has an office in Rochester. Kingsley said he has reason to believe that cannabis can help patients with PTSD.

"A good number of patients who are suffering intractable pain or some other condition who also have PTSD have been benefiting from cannabis as far as their PTSD symptoms go. So we are definitely encouraged this is going to be helpful for some people suffering with PTSD," Kingsley said.

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Lack of evidence?

But there is skepticism among some in the medical community about using medical cannabis to treat PTSD. Minnesota Medical Association President Dave Agerter said the organization has concerns about treating PTSD patients with medical marijuana because there is a lack of well-controlled studies proving it helps treat the symptoms of PTSD.

"We certainly as an organization want to support and look at improved care for patients with PTSD. However, we do recognize patients with this disorder frequently have co-occurring substance abuse disorders," Agerter said.

The state's policy is also at odds with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Since marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, the VA prohibits its physicians from participating in state cannabis programs.

It has been just over two years since medical marijuana became legal in the state. Minnesota has one of the strictest medical cannabis programs in the nation. Patients must have one of 11 qualifying conditions, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis or intractable pain, to be eligible for the program. And until today, marijuana could only be sold in pill, liquid or oil form. The state's two manufacturers can now begin selling topical cannabis products, such as patches, balms and lotions.

From the beginning, the number of patients signing up for the cannabis program have lagged behind initial projections. As of Friday, 8,109 patients were enrolled in the program. Then there are the financial challenges. In March, the Associated Press reported that the state's two cannabis providers had lost a combined $11 million since 2015.

Cause for hope

But Kingsley said he sees reason for optimism. For starters, he said, the addition of intractable pain as a qualifying condition a year ago has led to a dramatic surge in the number of patients.

"The majority of patients are definitely the intractable pain patients. I would say four out of five people we see are intractable pain patients," he said.

The jump in patients means Kingsley is planning to increase the number of hours the Rochester office is open, from its current 2 1/2 days per week. Minnesota Medical Solutions has also been able to cut the cost of its medications and offer discounts. He is also optimistic that the company will meet its goal of breaking even this year.

Even with the price reductions, cost remains a major challenge for patients, according to Maren Schroeder, president of Sensible Minnesota. The volunteer-run organization helps guide patients through the process of getting certified to purchase medical marijuana in Minnesota.

"The biggest hurdle right now is cost. The medicine is still much more expensive than in other legal states," Schroeder said.

Some see benefits

Dr. Tom Arneson, research manager with the Office of Medical Cannabis, agreed that cost tops the list of patients' concerns — especially because cannabis is not covered by insurance. But he said a recent study found that a majority of patients enrolled in the program reported benefits during the first year. And the number of medical professionals participating in the program has steadily climbed, topping 900.

"The truth is a lot of the patients who are participating feel like they are getting a great deal of benefit from it. And in some cases, they tell us they talk to their doctors and their doctors remark on it. So I think slowly that's starting to get the word out," Arneson said.

Heather Tidd said she has seen firsthand how cannabis can help with PTSD. Two years ago, she began giving her then 11-year-old son T. J. medical marijuana to help treat his Tourette's syndrome. T.J. also suffers from PTSD, and she was hopeful cannabis would help him.

Tidd said the results have been dramatic. Her son has gone from having daily outbursts of rage that included breaking walls and threatening to harm people to a total of 15 incidents in two years.

"It's made a huge, huge difference," she said. "It gives him just a half second to process what he is going to do before he does it. "