MOORHEAD - Amy Wieser Willson has suffered for years from chronic pain so severe that some days she couldn't get out of bed. On those days, even contact with her bed sheets was painful.
Wieser Willson, whose ailments include fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis, now can take a capsule of medical marijuana before bed and, most mornings, wakes up pain free. Occasionally, when she has a flare-up, she uses a vaporized form of the medication, which relieves her pain.
"While pain may not be visible, it can absolutely be deadly," she said. Despite her pain, she refused to take narcotic painkillers. Two friends died from opioids; one by accidental overdose and the other by suicide.
For Mike Walters, medical marijuana relieves pain from neuropathy and also calms his anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Less than a drop of the medicine is enough to keep his anxiety at bay.
"You name it, I was just hair-triggered," he said. "I didn't enjoy this life at all."
Both Wieser Willson and Walters are veterans, and both are among the more than 17,000 patients in Minnesota who are certified to obtain medical marijuana, which they receive from the MinnMed dispensary in Moorhead, 104 7th St. S.
"Medical cannabis is not a miracle cure," said Dr. Jay Westwater, a physician and chief executive officer. "It has side effects. It can interact with other medications."
But, he added in a briefing with reporters on Thursday, Sept. 20, it also provides benefits to two-thirds of the patients who take it, according to surveys by the Minnesota Department of Health, which administers the medical marijuana program.
Since medical marijuana became legal in Minnesota in 2014, "Growth has been slow but steady," Westwater said.
The Minnesota Medical Solutions Patient Care Center here now serves about 400 patients, a number that has increased along with the number of eligible conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, seizures, muscle spasms, intractable pain, terminal illnesses, autism spectrum disorders, obstructive sleep apnea, inflammatory bowel disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Intractable pain and post-traumatic stress are the two most common conditions treated by medical marijuana in Minnesota, and that is true of patients served by MinnMed's Moorhead dispensary, Westwater said.
Forty-two percent of Minnesota patients taking medical cannabis for intractable pain reported a pain reduction of at least 30 percent, Minnesota health officials found earlier this year. A 2016 Minnesota study found 90 percent of patients reported mild to significant benefits, and 20 percent reported side effects.
"But many caregivers are reluctant to engage with their patients on this issue," Westwater said. As a result, patients should raise the issue with their doctors, he said.
Medical cannabis has been effective in helping patients to avoid opioids or to wean off of opioids, which are highly addictive and not effective for chronic pain, Westwater said.
"That is societally meaningful in the face of the harm that is being done by the opioid epidemic," he said.
Wieser Willson, who lives in Moorhead, said medical marijuana use still is stigmatized by society. Until deciding to speak publicly about the benefits she has received, she hadn't even told her father she was taking the drug.
"Even at 40, it's still a little uncomfortable telling your dad you're using pot," she said. "We really have to move past the stigma of marijuana."
Walters, who lives in Osage, agreed. "It's sad," he said. "We have to try and educate people."