Medical cannabis firm in Otsego providing a safer alternative for vaping in wake of wave of lung illnesses
by Maggie Stanwood
A Minnesota-based medical cannabis company with greenhouses in Otsego has become the first in the state to offer distillate products to its patients.
Minnesota Medical Solutions, or MinnMed, operates patient centers in Minneapolis, Bloomington, Rochester and Moorhead. According to a news release from the company, the distillate products are a safer alternative now being offered “in light of recent vaping-related lung illnesses.”
“It gets rid of some of the things like waxes and chlorophyll through distillation,” MinnMed Founder Dr. Kyle Kingsley said. “It makes it a cleaner, smoother experience for patients who want to do vaporization while keeping all the goodness, all the medicine. It’s an extra step to bring augmented quality and safety to our patients.”
In August and September 2019, there was an outbreak of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury with more than 2,600 hospitalizations and 60 confirmed deaths as of January 2020, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of those, 82% reported using THC-containing products. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main psychoactive compound found in marijuana. The majority of patients who reported where they had obtained the products said they got them informally, but 16% said they had gotten the products from a commercial source such a recreational or medical dispensary, according to the CDC.
Kingsley said demand for cannabis oil has doubled since the company began offering distillates in early December. The distillates join the other products the company offers, such as topicals, tinctures, capsules, powders and more.
Kingsley, who used to work as an emergency room doctor, said he was skeptical about the medical benefits of cannabis until he treated a Gulf War veteran with morphine. Even in medical school, very little of his education had touched on cannabis as a medical treatment.
“In California, (the veteran) simply used cannabis every day and had almost no pain,” Kingsley said. “It really got me looking at cannabis as more than a perceived recreational substance.”
As the opioid epidemic became more prevalent, Kingsley said he became more and more interested in the benefits of cannabis as an alternative pain treatment. Opioid drugs, such as heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and more, act on receptors in the brain to relieve pain.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pharmaceutical companies told the medical community in the 1990s that patients would not become addicted to opioids and providers began to prescribe them more. But opioids are “highly addictive.” According to Department of Health, 10.3 million misused prescription opioids in 2018 and more than 130 people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses.
“For me, this really was about the war on opioids and the alternative to opioids,” Kingsley said. “Cannabis is a very real alternative, especially to chronic pain. Opioids have their time and place, but after days and weeks, there’s an interesting cost benefit analysis to using cannabis. Cannabis doesn’t seem to have a downside. An overdose doesn’t kill you.”
Kingsley said cannabis has the stigma it does now as a medical treatment due to the war on drugs in the 1970s. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, which categorized drugs into five schedules based on medical application and “potential for abuse,” according to the History Channel. Marijuana was classified as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it was considered to be the most dangerous and have few medical benefits.
According to an interview from the 1990s published in Harper’s Magazine in 2016, the War on Drugs was created to keep Nixon as president. Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told the journalist: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. … Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
However, the stigma is shrinking. Use of cannabis for medical purposes is legal in 33 states, Minnesota being one of those. Recreationally, marijuana is legal in 11 states for adults over the age of 21. Even with more access, Kingsley said cost can be prohibitive when it comes to medical marijuana.
“It’s fascinating that for a $5 or $10 copay, people on Medicare or Medicaid can get enough Percocet to kill somebody,” Kingsley said. “Medicare or Medicaid doesn’t cover cannabis, which doesn’t have those downsides.”
At the moment, Minnesota doesn’t allow the sale of the raw plant, or flower, to those with prescriptions for medical cannabis, meaning dispensaries have to process all products. Kingsley said if the dispensaries were able to sell the raw flower, it would cut down on production efforts, leading to reduced costs and in turn, offering people a more affordable alternative to opioids.
“Until you get the flower, it’s hard for people to get access,” he said. “I would love to see more affordable options. The biggest single thing we can do to change the cost equation here in Minnesota is the flower.”
Kingsley said he encourages those with questions about cannabis or opioids to research the issue in order to make their own decisions. He also said people could look at the MinnMed website or call a MinnMed dispensary.
“We love to help people learn,” he said.