Special Report: Inside A Minnesota Medical Cannabis Growing Operation

Could Cannabis Be The Solution To The Opioid Crisis?

Opioid overdoses are now killing more people each year than vehicle crashes on the road, according to the latest numbers from the Minnesota Department of Health.

It’s a public health crisis that the CDC says is even driving down U.S. life expectancy. Now, the nation-wide conversation has turned toward how to fix the mess.

In the first of three-part series FOX 21 is introducing you to what some say could be the “miracle solution,” a lifesaver for thousands hooked on pills.

Cannabis has a reputation surrounded by controversy, and we wanted to find out the truth about it.

Dr. Adam Locketz, owner and operator Twin Cities based Timewise Medical recently opened a satellite location to certify for Duluth patients for medical cannabis due to a growing need in the area. He sees patients in Duluth once a month and stays he’s able to book about 13 appointments each visit.

Dr. Locketz’s practice also specializes addiction treatment, offering outpatient detox.

“Going through opioid withdrawal is painful and uncomfortable, it’s really important to get them back to health,” said Dr. Locketz.

It’s his unconventional method of treatment that make him rare in Duluth, he’s a self-professed “leading marijuana doctor.”

“Cannabis has an incredible identity crisis,” said Dr. Locketz. “People think it’s coming from the devil, or it’s a medicine. You can’t think both of those.”

His focus centered on this work a few years ago when Prince died of a fentanyl overdose.

“It became clear a lot of patients were coming in in the Twin Cities, looking to get off pills they’d been on for a long time,” said Dr. Locketz.

Since then, hundreds of patients have been through his detox program. He found many are on opioids in the first place to treat chronic pain, a medical condition in which suffering lasts for months, is debilitating and can get progressively worse. As of 2016, it’s also a health condition that qualifies for medical cannabis in Minnesota.

As Dr. locketz’s patients chose to quit opioids, and go through withdrawal which causes flu-like symptoms getting certified for Marijuana has become of a sort of ‘secret weapon’ to get through it.

“Cannabis just helps you smoothing those symptoms, on your nervous system throughout the process,” said Dr. Locketz. “It’s very effective. Hundreds and hundreds of patients have used this effectively now in my practice.”

Cannabis is not just helping some get off the opioids, it’s become a “treatment” of its own for their pain.

The Minnesota Health Department just released a study on state patients using medical cannabis for intractable pain, out of more than 2,000 people more than 60 percent reported that they were able to reduce or eliminate opioid use, and had a significant reduction in their pain.

It’s a trend LeafLine Labs, one of Minnesota’s medical cannabis producers is also tracking. They researched 100 of their own patients.

“Thirty-five percent of them are weaning down if not off opioids completely within 30 days,” said former CEO, Dr. Andrew Bachman. “We followed that for 90 days and saw that was maintained throughout the time period. It’s remarkable, compelling data.”

Leafline says cannabis is the missing piece to the healthcare system’s pain management programs. To understand how a “federally illegal drug” can be medicine we went where it comes from, a plant in a cultivation room inside a 42,000 sq/ft hi-security leafline labs facility at a secret location in Cottage Grove.

According to Minnesota law, Leafline Labs must extract the oil from the plant buds, then it must be authorized, regulated and inspected by a third party before given to patients only in capsule, vapor, or liquid form. There are no “joints” you can’t legally “smoke pot” in the program.

“Bottom line it’s medicine, it’s going into the mouths of children, it’s going into the mouths of grandparents,” said Dr. Bachman. “Our youngest patient is 2, our oldest is 102.”

In Hibbing at the only medical cannabis dispensary in our area, chronic pain and opioids are the most common words long-time pharmacist Jeff Shapiro hears.

“Intractable pain makes up 65 percent of the patients,” said Shapiro. “Most of the patients we see are either currently on opioids or able to get off opioids and looking for something to replace the opioids.”

After years working for Walgreens Shapiro joined on at Leafline, he says patients come to him out of desperation.

“They refer to us as their last resort,” said Shapiro. “When opioids are limited to them they’re not getting the same kind of relief they were getting with higher doses. They’re looking for something that will help without the side effects, dependence, and tolerance we see with opioids.”

Shapiro says most patients find success, but there are some cases where cannabis doesn’t work. According to the Minnesota Department of health study, 10 percent of patients reported little to no benefit from cannabis. Meanwhile, 40 percent reported adverse side effects like dry mouth, drowsiness, fatigue.

“We’ve had failures, there’s certain groups that seem to do better than others,” said Shapiro.

However, Shapiro says it’s not often you come across a medication that’s caused zero serious adverse health effects since the start of the Minnesota pain program. That means no one has gone to the hospital or died because of side effects of the medication.

Shapiro says one big hurdle is stigma.

“One of the things we battle more in rural areas is the acceptance of it as a therapy on a general level,” said Shapiro.

It’s a hurdle Dr. Adam Locketz says in time will fade away.

“I see it moving slowly over time,” said Dr. Locketz. “This has never changed quickly. This is a needed thing.”

Despite the promising results of the Minnesota Health Department study, it’s incredibly difficult for a chronic pain patient get certified for medical cannabis in this area because most doctors, especially with the larger health systems will not certify chronic pain patients.

The FOX 21 special report continues Tuesday night when we talk to three Minnesotan’s who currently use medical cannabis as an opioid alternative. Wednesday we’ll be talking with Duluth’s hospitals about why they have not certified any patients for chronic pain.

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