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New law can keep medi-pot users out of jail, if they can sign up

Minnesota's new medical cannabis law went into effect on July 1, to the great relief of many sufferers of epilepsy, cancer and other medical conditions. Now, patients able to obtain a doctor's medical certification for a qualifying condition can legally possess and use cannabis-based medicines in oil, pill or liquid form.

For those hoping to benefit from the drugs, the news that they can take them without fear of criminal drug prosecution is an enormous relief. As we've mentioned before, however, they aren't immune from prosecution for behavior related to medi-pot; diversion of the drugs to others, or lying on the required forms, are still illegal. 

As of Day 1, the biggest barrier may be the doctor certification. Duane Bandel, who himself sits on Minnesota's Task Force for Medical Cannabis Research, can't find a doctor willing to sign the certification even though he has a qualifying condition.

"I have called, I have written, I have begged, I have pleaded," he told the StarTribune. "I have an appointment with my doctor next week, but I have been told that nobody at my clinic and nobody at my HMO is certifying."

The law allows healthcare providers to opt out, and this has been common so far. Some doctors may oppose medical marijuana, while others may be concerned about the cost of compliance. Some may be waiting to see what happens to doctors who participate. Others may fear prosecution -- either because of possible Minnesota law enforcement scrutiny or because marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

According to the StarTribune, large practice groups are currently in the process of making the decision, or still working out their internal policies regarding the evaluation of appropriate medi-pot patients, tracking prescriptions, and complying with state law.

Assuming patients who qualify under the current law can find a doctor to certify their medical conditions, the Health Department may expand the number of qualifying conditions in the future. In January, intractable, chronic pain may be added to the list.

For many people with qualifying medical conditions, access to marijuana probably seems like a huge blessing -- and it may well be, if things go well for the first group of patients. We should keep an eye on whether marijuana users have trouble avoiding arrest or end up facing increased prosecution for related offenses. This may be as critical as any potential health benefit.

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