‘Cannabis saved me’: Assessing the benefits of medical cannabis | Progress

Imagine if your reality was a pattern of waking from a nightmare, drenched in a cold sweat, all stemming from traumatic experiences you sustained in your childhood. Imagine living in a state of anxiety and depression that was so crippling you turned to drugs and alcohol to dull your reality just to feel some semblance of normalcy. 

These experiences are commonplace for someone living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and were all too common for Fergus Falls resident, Emily McCune. 

“I found even simply existing in my own head and heart to be unbearable without the ‘escape’ from reality that alcohol provided,” McCune shared of life before medical cannabis. 

In 2017, after receiving a diagnosis of PTSD, McCune was started on a regimen of pharmaceuticals but suffered severe adverse reactions. In 2018, after obtaining cannabis and recognizing the benefits she was experiencing from its use, she returned to her medical provider, openly sharing her experiences with both her prescriptions as well as the cannabis. Her provider suggested Minnesota’s medical cannabis program, an option McCune wasn’t even aware of, and they began the enrollment process immediately.

On July 1, 2015, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) began distributing medical cannabis in accordance with the medical cannabis program. As of September 2020, over 25,000 Minnesotans were actively enrolled in the state’s medical cannabis registry, utilizing medical cannabis as a method of treatment for their qualifying condition(s), but what does that mean?

Medical cannabis is not an option for just anyone. Presently, there are 15 qualifying conditions, or diagnoses, recognized by MDH for treatment consideration via medical cannabis: cancer/cancer treatment, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Tourette syndrome, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease), seizures, severe and persistent muscle spasm, terminal illness with a life expectancy of less than one year (accompanied by severe/chronic pain, nausea, or severe wasting), inflammatory bowel disease, intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism spectrum disorder, obstructive sleep apnea, Alzheimer’s disease, or chronic pain. 

In August 2021, two more qualifying conditions will join the list: sickle cell disease and chronic vocal or motor tic disorder. It is possible that anxiety could also be approved in 2021, but is still under review. In order to qualify for the state’s medical cannabis program, a patient must have a diagnosis of one of the approved qualifying conditions listed above. 

To learn about the process for obtaining medical cannabis Dr. Wade Swenson of Lake Region Healthcare (LRH) was contacted. Swenson is a medical oncologist and hematologist who provides medical cannabis certification for patients with qualified cancer diagnoses. 

“Patients with a qualifying condition (would start by making an) appointment with a medical provider who is certified with the state’s medical cannabis program. If the provider agrees that the patient has an appropriate qualifying condition, their information is entered in the medical cannabis registry on the MDH website. The patient will receive an email from MDH to continue the registration process.” 

Registration does require a $200 annual fee, though it is discounted for patients receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability, medical assistance, MinnesotaCare, Veterans Affairs dependency compensation, or veterans disability benefits. 

LRH has a number of providers qualified to certify conditions. To make contact, potential patients should call the LRH appointment line and ask about medical cannabis. Callers will then be connected with a health care home coordinator who can navigate them through the process. 

Once approved and registered, a patient can obtain medical cannabis at 1 of 11 cannabis patient centers within the state. The two nearest the area are located in Moorhead and St. Cloud. Cannabis is dispensed via an oral solution, sublingual spray, oral capsule, topical formulation, or vaporized oil and is provided by Leafline Labs or Vireo Health, which also offers an oral lozenge option. 

While the use of medical cannabis is on the rise, there is still very little information in medical literature regarding efficacy, dose or side effects for most medical conditions. Research information is currently collected by MDH from patients and providers regarding their experiences, with over half of patients rating their experience as very beneficial in most instances. Medical providers also rated medical cannabis highly, though not at the same level as the patients. 

“At some point, I expect there will be a national law to permit medical cannabis,” Swenson shared, stating that there are currently 36 states that allow the use of medical cannabis for treatment. “A good first step would be federal deregulation of barriers prohibiting research of medical cannabis. I would like to see more medical research about cannabis so we can better understand the benefits and limitations of medical cannabis for various health conditions.” 

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act is a piece of legislation that passed the House of Representatives in December 2020. If it passes the Senate, it would decriminalize marijuana and remove it from Schedule I substances. While the MORE Act would open up avenues for research and usage, it does not specifically address medical cannabis. 

While it is yet to be seen what happens with the MORE Act, McCune is hopeful for its passing, as the benefits she has experienced from the use of medical cannabis have transformed her life in a dramatic way. In the fall of 2019, she began daily consumption of medical cannabis and began weaning off of pharmaceuticals. Today, she has been free of all pharmaceutical medications and is strictly using medical cannabis for the treatment of her PTSD for well over a year. McCune is a microdoser, which means she consumes very small amounts of cannabis throughout the day as opposed to consuming a large quantity at one time. The benefit of McCune’s microdosing is that she avoids “being stoned,” which is undesirable for her, while still benefiting from the positive effects of the substance. 

“I respect this medicine so much,” McCune said. “Cannabis has served every medicinal purpose that my former pharmaceutical prescriptions have served to treat, only way more effectively. Cannabis makes me feel good and happy and motivated and driven. It helps me feel more creative and inspired. It helps me think deeply and philosophically, and it helps me plan more effectively. It makes me appreciate and find beauty in the otherwise mundane. It helps me get to sleep within minutes of laying down at night as opposed to tossing and turning for hours. It makes me feel much more connected to my own spirit and soul and, now, to my community. My quality of life has significantly improved and that only grows every single day.” 

Thanks to medical cannabis, McCune has been in recovery for nearly two years. She owns and operates Sugar High Bakery, a successful Fergus Falls cottage bakery that offers baked goods using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. She offers treats that are both cannabis infused with legally sourced cannabis and treats entirely free of cannabis. She is dedicated to spreading awareness for the benefits of cannabis and looks forward to the day where the stigma surrounding the substance is a thing of the past. 

“(Cannabis) saved me, really,” McCune said.

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