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When it comes to medical cannabis, Dr. Melanie Johnson wants to 'translate doctor into human'

The Mayo-trained family medicine doctor set up her own practice in Zumbro Falls after seeing how medical cannabis alleviated her son's seizures and Tourette Syndrome symptoms.

Asked and Answered - Dr. Melanie Johnson
Dr. Melanie Johnson of The Green Clinic on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Zumbro Falls.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ZUMBRO FALLS — As you drive along U.S. Highway 63 through Zumbro Falls, population 207, you may notice a green house just beyond the town's Hometown Heroes Memorial. That's home to The Green Clinic, Dr. Melanie Johnson's private practice that specializes in certifying medical cannabis patients.

Johnson, a Mayo Clinic-educated family medicine physician, has been practicing medicine since 2001 and spent the bulk of her career at Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester. She pivoted to medical cannabis certification after her oldest son was prescribed cannabis in 2019. Now, Johnson prescribes medical cannabis and helps her patients understand their treatment options and their legal protections.

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What got you into your medical cannabis practice?

So, I’m a family medicine doctor — that was my training, and I really enjoyed practicing full-spectrum primary care at Mayo and Olmsted. Then my oldest son actually has Tourettes and seizures. He didn’t do very well on synthetics, so I had to learn about medical cannabis because that was another option. Once I started looking into the science and the medicine of it, it was very clear that it was a good option for him and lots of other people that I treated. So, I set about trying to make medical cannabis accessible and easy and affordable for people so that people like my son could get the medical care they needed.

How did cannabis help your son?

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For him, it was a life changer. We went from talking about maybe preparing for a group home to graduating with all A's and no IEP. And then, he graduated with honors from college and is in his dream job. It made a huge difference for our family, but it was really hard to find, and I wanted it to be easy for other moms and patients to get a reliable source of cannabis information and a reliable way to be certified.

What does your work entail on the day-to-day with patients?

My job is that I need to evaluate whether their health history has any medical conditions that could be exacerbated by medical cannabis and make sure they’re a good candidate. Then, I do a physical exam, and the majority of the hourlong consult is actually me teaching them about how to manipulate medical cannabis, the options they have, their legal protections and how they would adjust it based on what they’re experiencing.

My passion is really educating people about it so that they feel comfortable and confident in the medication and can use it without being worried they’re going to be fired or being worried that it’s addictive because neither of those are the case.

You worked in Rochester for several years before opening up The Green Clinic in Zumbro Falls. Why there?

It’s a charming small-town feel. All the community is so welcoming, and it’s only 20 minutes outside of Rochester. The parking is free and easy.

What are some common questions that people — either your patients or just members of the public — ask you about the state medical cannabis program?

A lot of people ask me if they’ll get fired. There’s a specific law, the Minnesota Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research Act, and it states that you cannot impact anyone’s medical care or their employment based on their need or use of medical cannabis. So, we actually have a lot of protection in Minnesota for medical cannabis patients.

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The second most common would be, “I don’t want to be sedated. Can you make it so that I’m not sedated?” Part of the education process is learning how to control that sedation that people typically assume from cannabis.

How do people qualify for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program?

You have to be a Minnesota resident and be able to prove it, and then you have to have one of the qualifying conditions. The two most common qualifying conditions for the program, taken as a whole, in Minnesota are pain and PTSD. And any pain is enough — it’s actually modeled after Colorado’s medical program because it was so successful.

So, if you break your leg and it hurts 90 days later, that qualifies. Your knee (injury) from high school that hurts when it rains qualifies. Your headaches qualify. Chronic pain is anything greater than 90 days, and it doesn’t have to be continuous — one of the most common things it’s used for in medical programs across the first world are migraines.

Our goal is to make it comfortable and accessible, and if you explain things to people, how it works, it’s really an easy medication to work with. It just takes some explaining, so that’s what I love to do.

What’s one of your favorite parts about having your own practice?

One of the nicest things about having my own clinic is that it’s totally private. My electronic medical record doesn’t connect to anybody’s, so unless you choose to disclose it to your employer or to your other medical providers, it doesn’t show up there. That makes a lot of people feel more comfortable.

What do you like to do outside of work?

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Garden, ride my horses and play with my kids. That pretty much sums it up.

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's region reporter, covering the greater Rochester area. Before joining the Post Bulletin in 2022, she attended Kansas State University and served as an editor for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and news director for Wildcat 91.9, K-State's student radio station. Readers can reach Dené at ddryden@postbulletin.com.
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