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Medical marijuana is legal in Minnesota: 7 things to know for the first day

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Medical marijuana is legal in Minnesota, allowing people with certain medical conditions to buy the drug in liquid or pill form to help ease their symptoms.

Moments after midnight Wednesday – when medical marijuana became legal in the state – the first three families picked up their prescriptions at the Minnesota Medical Solutions clinic in Minneapolis.

"We've been waiting a long time for this," Kim Kelsey told the Star Tribune. She picked up a week's worth of medical marijuana pills for her 24-year-old son who suffers from epilepsy.

For Kelsey and the other patients planning to pick up the drug Wednesday, this day has been a long time coming.

Minnesota's medical marijuana program is considered one of the strictest in the country, and over the past year there has been a great deal of information published about how the system will work and who is running the businesses that will serve these customers.

You can find that background from the state's Medical Cannabis program, the vendors (LeafLine Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions), the St. Paul Pioneer Press and MPR News.

Here are answers to some of the more pertinent questions.

1. Who can get medical marijuana in Minnesota?

Only people who have certain medical conditions can be approved to use medical marijuana. They are:

  • Cancer - if you also have severe or chronic pain, nausea, severe vomiting or severe wasting, or you have a life expectancy of 1 year or less
  • Glaucoma
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
  • Seizures, including those characteristic of epilepsy
  • Severe and persistent muscle spasms, including those characteristic of multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Terminal illness with a probable life expectancy of less than one year

2. How does medical marijuana help people with these conditions?

For some patients, marijuana is simply better at managing symptoms like chronic pain, nausea, muscle spasms, seizures and wasting than other prescription drugs.

Marijuana plants contain dozens of compounds known as cannabinoids, and there are five cannabinoids that are especially effective in relieving the symptoms of these illnesses, according to United Patients Group.

Each one of the cannabinoids produces different physical and psychological effects, so producers grow different varieties that are meant to treat specific symptoms.

For example, the best-known cannabinoid, THC (the one that delivers the "high"), is a muscle relaxant that helps lower blood pressure and stimulates the appetite.

Another compound, CBD, is good at relieving pain, nausea and convulsions. Similarly, the other three main cannabinoids are each better at treating certain other symptoms. (There's much more information at the United Patients Group site)

3. How much will it cost?

A lot. There's a $200 registration fee you need to pay to the state when you sign up for the program. The fee is reduced to $50 for people on government assistance programs.

Then you need to pay the provider of the marijuana for the drugs you buy. That actual cost depends on the dosage and the exact type of medicine, but the suppliers estimate it'll cost between $300 and $500 per month. Both of them have said, though, they will have special pricing structures to cut costs for those with lower incomes, according to MPR News.

4. Will insurance cover the cost?

No. Health insurance companies won't provide coverage for medical marijuana, so patients will need to cover the entire cost themselves. And they'll need to use cash to purchase the drug, the Star Tribune notes. Since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, most banks and credit card companies won’t process transactions for it.

5. Why is it so expensive?

One main reason the costs are so high is that the marijuana cannot be smoked or sold in plant form. The companies need to use expensive equipment to convert the plants into pill or oil forms – the only kinds that are legal under the new state law.

6. Why are there eight dispensaries?

In the compromise legislation that made medical marijuana legal, the Senate and House couldn't decide on how many dispensaries, or clinics, to have. Some in the House wanted only two, while some senators argued for dozens.

The compromise was eight – one clinic would be located in each of Minnesota's congressional districts, according to the Star Tribune.

Since several districts are in the metro area, though, four of the clinics are clustered in and around the Twin Cities, meaning people in outstate Minnesota will face long drives to reach one of the facilities.

It's also worth noting that the first two to open are in Minneapolis and Eagan. It could be several months before all of them are up and running.

7. Why not Duluth?

Notably missing from the map is Duluth, the most populous city, by far, in the Northland.

The city council there showed little interest in allowing such a site, and approved a moratorium in November to suspend any plans for a medical marijuana facility there.

At the time of the vote, the Star Tribune said one city councilor noted Duluth’s struggles with synthetic drugs in recent years, citing it as a reason to pause any potential process before it even started.

Bonus: A very brief history of medical marijuana

Cannabis has been used for centuries as a medicine; some historians trace it all the way back to ancient China and Taiwan, according to TIME. As recently as the 18th century, doctors in the U.S. and Britain were prescribing marijuana in various forms to treat illnesses such as rheumatism and nausea.

Marijuana wasn't declared illegal until 1937, when the federal government outlawed the nonmedical use of it. Then in the '50s, Congress passed more severe criminal penalties for using or selling marijuana for any purpose, effectively ending its legal use as a medicine – until the past few years when individual states have taken action to allow its use for medicinal or recreational purposes.

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