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Patients star in effort to counter medical marijuana stigma

MINNEAPOLIS — Armed with stories from patients whose lives have turned around after using medical marijuana, the state's companies who cultivate and sell the medications are hoping to counter the longstanding stigma that still surrounds Minnesota's newest medicine.

The medical community's unease hasn't stopped since Minnesota's program launched nearly six months ago, even though the state repeatedly has said the drug is a regulated medicine.

That hesitation kept a doctor's approval out of Jess Blake's reach for weeks. And it's a factor in why Sarah Wellington, David Dailey and others can't take their medication to ease painful muscle spasms while at work.

Minnesota's two medical marijuana manufacturers say they're upping their outreach efforts to the medical community and would-be patients who are unaware the drug is an option— both moves crucial for when the state extends the possibility to use marijuana to thousands of patients suffering from intractable pain next summer. Experiences like Marguerite Norton Furlong's, who is back to traveling for work and cheering on her four children at track meets after being largely homebound by her Crohn's disease and muscle spasms, will figure prominently in their pitch.

"With time, it's hard to ignore so many patients and so many stories," said Laura Bultman, chief medical officer at the manufacturer Minnesota Medical Solutions.


Sales of medical marijuana pills, oils and vapors started in July.

Blake, Wellington, Dailey and other patients sang medical marijuana's praises at Minnesota Medical Solution's Minneapolis patient center Monday. They also touched on troubles, such as the hurdles to get signed up and high costs for a month's supply.

Blake lived in a fog as she battled a cancerous brain tumor, unable to think clearly or care for herself. She calls the days before getting medical marijuana this summer her "dark days." Now, she's aiming to return to work as a middle school teacher — once an impractical thought. Friends now visit her in Duluth to spend time together, not to take care of her.

"She said, 'You have your Jess-ness back,'" Blake recounted one friend telling her.

Blake is far from the only patient who struggled to get certified for medical marijuana by doctors. Bultman and others have pegged wary physicians as a factor behind lackluster enrollment: Less than 850 were enrolled as of Sunday.

But while Blake's story and others are heartwarming, Dave Thorson, president of the physician trade group Minnesota Medical Association, said he thinks the bulk of doctors will need to see clinical trials proving medical marijuana's efficacy before that dynamic disappears. The doctors who have signed off on medical marijuana — himself included — probably reflect individual patients searching for a last recourse rather than health-care providers changing their minds about the drug, he said.

"Doctors are still going to want to see scientific evidence rather than anecdotal stories," Thorson said. "I don't think we've seen a real shift in masses of providers as much as we've seen that people have been willing to go outside the box."

The Minnesota Medical Association, the state's trade group for physicians, referenced some of that skepticism when they expressed reservations about the state's decision earlier this month to add intractable pain as a qualifying condition.


"Significant questions about the efficacy of medical cannabis remain and we continue to call for additional well-controlled studies," the group said in a statement.

It's unclear how that number will grow with the expansion of the program scheduled for August.

"We learned you can't just build it and they will come," said Manny Munson-Regala, chief executive of the state's second manufacturer, LeafLine Labs.

Bultman said Minnesota Medical Solutions is contacting clinics and hospital systems where patients have reported issues getting certified, trying to shed more light on their business and soothe concerns. The company is also scheduling meetings and presentations with treatment foundations, physicians' organizations and directly with doctors to teach them about their business and marijuana.

To alert potential patients, Munson-Regala said his company is reaching out through patient support organizations and using social media. He's also toying with advertising.

"I think we're going to learn a lot about what works to connect with patients and providers," he said.

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