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Our View: What do you know about medical marijuana?

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The medical marijuana capsules prescribed to Kathryn Schroeder.
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It's a question most Minnesotans never imagined asking their doctor: Is marijuana the right medication for me?

The topic won't come up often because patients have to be gravely ill to be eligible for medical marijuana. To qualify for a cannibis prescription, you must have one of nine medical conditions, specifically cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Tourette syndrome, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seizures, severe and persistent muscle spasms, Crohn's disease or a terminal illness that associated with severe pain, nausea or vomiting. A 10th condition — intractable pain — is under consideration by a Minnesota Department of Health advisory panel.

Your doctor won't be able to write the prescription or decide the dosage. The prescription and dosage — available only in pill, oil or vapor forms — will be up to a pharmacist affiliated with one of the eight state-approved dispensaries .

In Minnesota, one of 24 states that has legalized medical marijuana, a doctor's sole role is to confirm that a patient has a qualifying condition. Not every doctor has to make that determination. State law allows doctors to opt out of certifying patients.

When the Legislature approved medical marijuana in 2014, the law was written to shield doctors from the possible legal consequences of prescribing a federally banned substance. The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning it has no recognized medical value. The federal ban has made it difficult for researchers to collect hard scientific data about its medical uses and potential benefits.

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Consequently, much of what we know of marijuana's medical value is anecdotal. Of the objective studies we do have, the results are conflicting.

A promising 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control found deaths from painkiller overdoses were 25 percent lower in states that have legalized medical marijuana. However, just last month, a review of 79 clinical trials involving more than 6,400 patients in the Journal of the American Medical Association found little evidence to support medical marijuana's use for all but a handful of maladies.

The paucity of information has prompted groups to provide data about medical cannabis. The Minnesota Medical Association has published papers and organized seminars for health professionals and medical students. Sensible Minnesota , a coalition of volunteers serving Rochester and the Twin Cities, has created a database of information and started a patient advocacy program. LeafLine Labs , one of Minnesota's two medical marijuana producers, has an outreach program to educate Minnesota's physicians.

As of July 10, the Minnesota Department of Health said there are 265 doctors authorized to certify patients. So far, only 276 patients have been certified by their doctors, and only 147 of those are registered to pick up medical marijuana for treatment. The Health Department estimates eventually about 5,000 patients will sign up for medical marijuana under its current rules. Those projections could increase exponentially if intractable pain becomes a qualifying condition.

Educate yourself if you decide to ask if a cannabis prescription is appropriate for your health condition. And don't be surprised if you know nearly as much as your doctor. This is a new medical frontier for all Minnesota health professionals.

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