FILE - Medical marijuana dispensary

About 16 medical marijuana patient centers across Minnesota should be open by the end of 2020.

Bill Parker, chief executive officer of LeafLine Labs, one of Minnesota’s two marijuana manufacturers and distributors, told The Center Square additional facilities will ease access to some patients who had to travel up to two hours away to one of the eight current dispensaries stretched across the state.

Dr. Kyle Kingsley, founder and chief executive officer of Vireo Health, the parent company of Minnesota Medical Solutions, told The Center Square that the most significant obstacle in Minnesota’s medical market is its ban on cannabis flower.

“The inclusion of flower would be the single greatest price reducer that we could bring to the marijuana program,” Kingsley said.

Flower prices would be about a third of current, comparable products, Kingsley said, because pill and oil form, the current legal delivery methods, require more refining processes than growing, testing and packaging flower.

Adding flower would increase the number of patients receiving treatment, which would allow Vireo to increase production capacity and gain economies of scale, Kingsley said, so that it could reduce prices across the board.

"There are so many products right now that aren’t affordable for people, but they could afford the alternative in flower,” Kingsley said, adding that he was skeptical of marijuana’s medical benefits until he witnessed it displacing opioids to treat a veteran’s chronic back pain and muscle spasms from a gunshot wound.

Minnesota Department of Health numbers show the veteran wasn’t an isolated case study. The top three conditions of the state's 18,234 medical marijuana patients are intractable pain: 64 percent; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): 19 percent; and severe and persistent muscle spasms: 12 percent.

Parker, an Army veteran, said many veterans serving overseas return home with PTSD with few treatment options that provide a better quality of life, but cannabis can take the edge off anxiety so other therapies are more beneficial.

Parker said those on a medical cannabis treatment course to treat PTSD say they can wean off much of their traditional medicines after a couple of weeks.

Kingsley said he thinks medical marijuana may be one of the safest paths for people with chronic pain. His company has enacted post-market surveillance for the last five years to monitor products for safety issues and has found no serious side effects.

Working as a paramedic for 14 years, Parker witnessed opioid addiction or abuse firsthand.

“It was almost a daily occurrence to run into somebody with some kind of opioid addiction or abuse issues,” Parker said. “It was chronic. We had almost weekly, if not daily overdoses.”

He wanted to treat people in a less harmful way.

Parker pointed to a 2014 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association that found states that legalized medical marijuana had about a 25 percent decrease in opioid overdoses for given time frames.

“It doesn’t hold up over time, but you see almost an immediate effect on opioid incidents,” Parker said.

Parker noted those 18,234 medical marijuana patients account for about 0.32 percent of Minnesota’s approximately 5.6 million population, adding typical medical marijuana markets service just above 1 percent of a state’s population.

“There’s a lot of room for growth in Minnesota, and a lot of medical patients who could benefit from medical cannabis, but they’re hesitant to join because of either the access or affordability,” Parker said. “The whole goal here is to really grow the program, so we help out more ailing Minnesotans.”

Staff Reporter

Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.