U graduate leads marijuana research

Researchers will begin by studying effects of pill-form medical marijuana.

Kevin Karner

Research on implementing medical marijuana in Minnesota kicked off this month, and a University of Minnesota public health graduate is heading the charge.

Dr. Thomas Arneson, who graduated with a master’s degree from the School of Public Health in 1992, is a research manager at the new Office of Medical Cannabis, which was created to oversee the rollout of Minnesota’s recently approved medical marijuana law. Arneson is managing efforts that seek to better understand the effects of liquid and pill-form cannabis and to optimize dosing.

As a first step, researchers are surveying existing studies on how marijuana affects patients when taken by pill and compiling a database of results, Arneson said. Once the law is in full effect next year, researchers will actively collect data from patients to find out what worked for certain conditions and amounts.

Beginning in July, some forms of medical marijuana will be available for medical patients with select conditions, like glaucoma, Crohn’s disease and certain types of cancer.

One of the advantages to having medical marijuana manufactured in pill form, Arneson said, is the ability to standardize dosage and to refine beneficial properties.

“The intent here is to have controlled conditions with testing to try and ensure that there aren’t unwanted contaminants or material that you don’t want to enter the body one way or another,” Arneson said, adding that he feels the state’s restrictive law helps researchers learn more about dosing in a medical setting.

Minnesota’s Department of Health will certify just two manufacturers to create cannabis in liquid and pill form, in contrast to states like California that have more.

“[With Minnesota’s law], I think there’s a benefit in having greater control on what patients will be taking,” Arneson said.

Laws in many other states where medical marijuana is allowed include smokeable versions of the substance, whereas Minnesota only allows pill or liquid form.

“Many states are focusing on [medical marijuana], and I think this [issue] is in evolution in Minnesota, as it is in other states,” Arneson said.

Some organizations have expressed disappointment on the strict nature of the law, saying that it won’t help enough people or make the changes they want to see.

“Minnesota’s new medical marijuana law is essentially a prohibitionist farce,” said Marcus Harcus, the new executive director at the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “It’s utterly ridiculous that … people with genuine medical conditions that could benefit from it will be denied access. … It’s ridiculous to only have two manufacturers.”

But Joe Cronick, a communication studies senior who is involved with NORML, is more optimistic about the law, saying it will bring incremental gains.

“You can’t say ‘no’ to progress, even if it’s not enough,” he said. “It raises public awareness and gets people talking about it.”

Cronick said he believes telling the stories of patients who benefit from medical marijuana could change attitudes statewide.

“There’s lots of … education that needs to happen, and that’s why I think that these [research] trials, if they can establish legitimacy, will be important,” he said.