How to make Minnesota's medical cannabis program more affordable

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Over the past six years, as the founder and CEO of Vireo Health, one of Minnesota's licensed medical cannabis companies, I have had the privilege of helping thousands of patients across our state replace their often dangerous opioids with safe plant-based cannabis medicines.

Since its founding in 2014, Minnesota's medical cannabis program has evolved and adapted to better suit the needs of patients. I applaud these important changes, such as adding new qualifying conditions like Alzheimer's disease, sickle cell disease and chronic pain, among others.

However, steps must be taken to improve and grow the state's medical cannabis program by making it more affordable and accessible for Minnesotans. The fastest, most effective way to achieve this goal is to reduce the cost of medical cannabis by allowing it to be sold in its most natural state — as dry flower.

Allowing cannabis flower would greatly benefit existing patients, bring new patients into the program and ensure the future viability of Minnesota's medical cannabis program.

While voters are more evenly divided on the idea of recreational cannabis, polls show that more than eight out of 10 Americans now support the medical use of cannabis. Voters, politicians and advocates can all agree on the safety and benefits of medical cannabis as compared to the irrevocable damage caused by the opioid epidemic. In 2019, opioid overdoses hit a tragic record high with 428 confirmed deaths of Minnesotans. In that same year, zero died from a cannabis overdose.

The single most important argument for adding cannabis flower is that it will drastically reduce the cost for patients. Many Minnesotans cannot afford the current cost of medical cannabis, which is $250 a month on average and is not covered by medical insurance. Estimates show that allowing cannabis flower would reduce the average patient cost by nearly 50%, which would substantially improve accessibility and participation in the program.

Today, only 0.6% of Minnesota's population is enrolled in the state's medical cannabis program — creating high costs for patients and no economies of scale for Minnesota's licensed cannabis producers. In states that allow smokable cannabis flower, such as Maine (4.8%), Arizona (3.1%) and New Mexico (3.9%), participation in the program is far more robust. Higher participation rates help to ensure the programs in those states are more accessible and affordable for patients and can create more tax revenue.

Growing the state-regulated medical cannabis program will also help protect public health and safety. Patients who cannot afford the state's program often seek out their medicine through illicit markets, which leads to patients using unsafe, untested products. In the illicit market, there is no tracking of a product's potency or potential contamination with pesticides, heavy metals, or other adulterants. By giving Minnesotans a more affordable, regulated way to purchase medical cannabis, we can help protect them from dangerous unknowns of illegal products.

Possession of small amounts of cannabis in Minnesota has essentially been decriminalized. A person can possess up to one and a half ounces of cannabis flower that was illegally purchased in the shadows, and be on the hook for a petty misdemeanor, essentially a non-crime. This same person with legitimate medical needs cannot legally access this same amount of safe, tested, cannabis flower within the state-based medical program.

Research and data from other states shows that most medical cannabis patients prefer flower to other more processed forms of the plant. Adding flower creates more product variety and specification, thanks to increased access to different strains of cannabis with different medicinal profiles.

Minnesota remains the only state to have a THC medicinal cannabis program that does not allow the sale of dry cannabis flower. For us to best care for our fellow Minnesotans, we must continue to update and improve the medical program by allowing dry flower. In doing so, we could quickly and easily help patients and businesses, create new jobs and reduce the size of the cannabis illicit market.

The addition of cannabis flower will help grow Minnesota's medical program and in turn help state-licensed cannabis producers such as my company, Vireo Health. This change is important to existing and potential cannabis patients, who struggle to afford their medicine due to the limitations of the program.

Elected officials on both side of the aisle, at least some of the time, favor common-sense legislation. Let's hold our elected officials accountable on this slam-dunk issue. Please give Minnesota medical cannabis patients access to natural, affordable, safe, tested cannabis flower.

Kyle Kingsley, M.D., is the founder and chief executive of Vireo Health and a board-certified physician.

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