Legislators still battle to fix ‘broken’ marijuana program

Chris Nolden, an advocate for medical marijuana, testifies before a packed house during legislative committee earlier this session. Photo: Bilal Suleiman, NDNA

Lawmakers have passed several medical marijuana bills through both chambers this session, hoping to fix the program some critics have called “broken.”


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“I think the progress we’ve made here is good. The changes that they’ve made are good changes,” Chris Nolden said. “But if people can’t get cards, then fixing anything else with the system is not going to happen.”

Nolden is a citizen activist and medical marijuana advocate who has extensively researched the drug’s medicinal properties.

He was in a motorcycle crash which shattered his leg, giving him a slight limp. He also has a degenerative back disease called spinal stenosis, which is one of the “debilitating medical conditions” listed for potential medical marijuana treatment under protocols set by the state Health Department.

Yet, Nolden said he’s still having trouble getting certified by a physician to use medical marijuana.

He said House Bill 1283 was “the most important” medical marijuana bill this session. HB 1283 removed a line which required a physician’s professional opinion that the patient will “receive therapeutic or palliative benefit from the medical use of marijuana to treat or alleviate the applicant’s debilitating medical condition.”

That line made physicians wary of recommending marijuana for patients with the allowable conditions because there isn’t much research available, said Dr. Chris Meeker, Chief Medical Officer of Sanford Health in Bismarck.

“Medical marijuana is good at treating symptoms: pain, nausea and lack of appetite,” Meeker said. “But there’s not much research on treatment of diseases available to physicians because it’s still technically illegal under federal law.”

About 220 patients have been issued medical marijuana cards, according to Jason Wahl, head of the Health Department’s medical marijuana division.

A spokesman for Sanford provided an official statement, which read: “Sanford does not endorse or oppose the use of medical marijuana. The decision to certify a patient is up to each Sanford doctor and what they feel is medically best for their patients. We base our discussions with patients on medical research to ensure the best treatment for our patients.”

Just because Sanford’s physicians can recommend use doesn’t mean they will, Meeker said, adding that doctors are hesitant to certify medical marijuana use because they are afraid of gaining a reputation through word-of-mouth and becoming inundated with patients seeking legal marijuana.

But some providers are not allowing physicians to certify medical marijuana use. Rep. Greg Westlind, R-Cando, serves on the Towner County Medical Board.

He said they have a policy of not recommending medical marijuana because of the proximity of the Heartview Foundation, a clinic for recovering drug addicts in Cando.

“One of the arguments was, people that are in opiate withdrawal, why should they be taking another drug to give them a sensational high?” Westlind said.

While Cando’s situation may be unique, Nolden said marijuana is a safer alternative for pain management than opiates, which had been commonly prescribed by healthcare providers until recent concerns about an addiction epidemic.

“If you are in long-term opiate pain management, you’re an addict,” Nolden said. He said that after his motorcycle accident, he began experiencing withdrawal symptoms after a few months of prescribed daily use of opiates, including Fentanyl.

“It was a nightmare I’ll never ever consider going back to,” Nolden said. To get back on opiates is a “guaranteed death sentence.”

He described side effects, including an inability to eat, sleep, or have normal bowel movements. “It messes with your brain’s cognitive ability to function,” Nolden said.

One incident nearly killed him, he said, and that helps explain why he’s so passionate about medical marijuana. “I’m just here to try and save lives,” he said.

“I had a pretty stout fever of 103 (degrees), and those Fentanyl patches weren’t designed for fluctuations in (body) temperature,” Nolden said.

“It dumped three days’ worth of Fentanyl into my blood stream in about an hour. I ran to the bathroom and I puked every 15 minutes for like 18 hours straight.”

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