How the MN Board of Pharmacy advocated for and against medical marijuana research [UPDATE]

Staff at the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy provided early technical support for a medical marijuana research study that became the basis of the bill awaiting Gov. Mark Dayton's signature.

If that news isn't surprising, consider this: Although the board takes no official position on the medical efficacy of the plant, it has made the process of reforming marijuana laws in Minnesota more difficult.

See also:
Gov. Dayton proposes replacing medical marijuana bill with health studies

The board exists to regulate Minnesota pharmacists. But part of its job includes overseeing the classification of drugs and re-evaluating those lists once a year to determine which drugs still belong there. Marijuana is considered a schedule one controlled substance, alongside opiates.

That classification came into question in 2010 and 2011 when a cannabis reform activist named Kurtis Hanna petitioned the board to remove the plant from its schedule one list, opening the door to research. On both occasions the board said no.

"It would have changed the whole ball game," Hanna says. "All the legislators this session couldn't have been able to say the experts haven't deemed the plant to be medically accepted."

Dr. Cody Wiberg is the executive director of the board and says its members denied the petitions for legal reasons, not political ones -- a decision that had nothing to do with the merits of marijuana as a possible pharmaceutical. Rather, he says, the board did not believe that it should put the entire State of Minnesota in conflict with federal controlled substance laws.

"I can't foresee a situation in which we could have granted such a petition," Wiberg says.

Hanna considered appealing his case to an administrative law judge, but within two months Wiberg had lobbied to change the board's rule-making authority. State legislators removed the board's ability to reclassify schedule one controlled substances and abolished its annual review process, thereby ensuring that the only avenue for citizens to reform drug laws would be through the capitol.

However, as the pressure mounted this year to pass medical marijuana legislation, Wiberg found himself in a very different position. Staff at the state Department of Health reached out for his advice on implementing a health study in place of the distribution system on the table.

In a memo dated Feb. 28, Wiberg looked backwards to the THC Therapeutic Research Act. In 1980, the Minnesota legislature and then-Gov. Rudy Perpich decided that the medicinal study of marijuana was a worthy cause. The program failed to get off the ground, but the law remains on the books.

Wiberg suggested that the same idea could be re-applied in the current dilemma. Georgia was considering a similar academic-based research study in place of a statewide distribution system. "If this approach is considered in Minnesota," Wiberg wrote,

perhaps a provision could be added to allow for approval of the use of cannabis of cannabidiol for 'compassionate use', outside of a clinical trial, in certain circumstances. This would be akin to the FDA allowing the use of investigational drugs for treatment of patients with serious or life-threatening conditions for which other treatments are not available or working.

Two weeks later, Dayton announced that he was putting his best people to work in crafting a compromised bill. In response, Wiberg sent an email to the governor's staff with suggestions for a broader distribution system of medical marijuana, one overseen by pharmacists.

Below is a copy of Wiberg's memo (which comes courtesy of Hanna through a data practices request).

Memorandum to Governor's Office Re: Medical Marijuana

-- Follow Jesse Marx on Twitter @marxjesse or send tips to [email protected]

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