MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota cancer patients who experience severe symptoms like vomiting and nausea may find relief in medical marijuana, according to a new study.
Researchers from the Minnesota Department of Health and the Oncology Research Center at HealthPartners/Park Nicollet surveyed 1,120 cancer patients who enrolled in the state medical cannabis program between July 2015 and the end of 2017.
Within four months of starting the medication, patients reported reductions in anxiety, renewed appetite, and fewer instances of depression, disturbed sleep, fatigue, nausea, pain and vomiting.
The study is the latest to suggest that marijuana may help treat symptoms of some severe conditions. But medical marijuana remains unaffordable for many Minnesota patients, prompting lawmakers to discuss ways to improve the state’s program.
Researchers asked patients to rate the severity of eight symptoms on a numerical scale before each medical marijuana purchase. The study found that patients who saw a reduction in the severity of their symptoms maintained it for at least four months.
“It is encouraging to see this evidence that Minnesota’s medical cannabis program is helping cancer patients,” state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement. “In addition to helping people with qualifying conditions, the program was designed to help advance scientific understanding of the treatment potential of cannabis. These latest findings demonstrate that the program is making valuable contributions toward that goal as well.”
About half of patients who suffered from vomiting when they enrolled in the program said the severity of it was reduced by more than 30 percent in their first four months of medical cannabis use.
Eleven percent of patients reported side effects from their cannabis treatment, the study said. The most common side effects were tiredness, dry-mouth and increased appetite.
“The data is promising, but we need thorough, high-quality research like this to continue in order to fully understand both the risks and potential benefits of medical cannabis,” said Dr. Dylan Zylla, medical director of the Oncology Research Center and co-author of the study.
Zylla and some of his colleagues are working on a study to determine how medical cannabis affects pain control and opioid use in patients with advanced cancers.
Their preliminary results are expected in June.
Minnesota’s medical cannabis program is widely seen as one of the most restrictive in the country. The tightly regulated program has priced out many of the patients who use the drug for relief.
New patients have left the program in droves, turning to the black market or prescription opioids because they cannot afford the processed pills and oils that are legal. The costly drugs are not insured and only patients with one of 13 severe conditions can use them.
And the state’s two medical marijuana producers have lost millions because of a strict tax structure. LeafLine Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions say they cannot lower their prices until regulatory burdens are struck from the law.
Fixes on the way?
Bills that would improve patient access and ease restrictions on producers have been discussed at the Capitol, and they have bipartisan support. Many of the proposals have been folded into larger omnibus bills.
Some of them include:
A bill that would let the manufacturers open four new dispensaries each. This would give rural patients better access; there are now eight dispensaries in the state, and four of them are in the Twin Cities metro.
A bill that would let the manufacturers write off business expenses like any other company. The law as it stands prevents them from doing so and has led to higher operating costs that get passed on to patients.
A bill that would let state hemp farmers sell their product to the medical cannabis manufacturers.
These three proposals appear to have support in the Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate.
Just last week, House Democrats made a notable addition to their health and human services omnibus bill. They added language that would legalize the marijuana plant for medicinal use; it could not be smoked by patients, just vaporized.
Many patients have said they would prefer to use the real plant, and the state’s two manufacturers acknowledge it would be cheaper to sell. Among the 33 states that have legalized medical marijuana, Minnesota is one of just a few that have outlawed the dried plant.
Patients tend to spend less on medical marijuana in states where the plant is legal. Pennsylvania expanded its program to offer the raw plant in August, and prices dropped significantly.
Before, the average patient shelled out $300 when he or she went to a dispensary, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. As of Feb. 1 — about six months after the plant was added — the average cost per patient on a trip to a dispensary had fallen to $130.
The Minnesota Senate has not signaled support for adding the dried plant. The proposal will likely be a part of end-of-session negotiations.