MINNEAPOLIS — The first six months of medical marijuana in Minnesota have been a mix of ups and downs, stakeholders said this week.
The rollout of the program since July 1 has largely been successful for Minnesota Medical Solutions and LeafLine Labs, but a lot of work still remains in shifting public opinion.
Five of Minnesota’s 800-plus registered medical cannabis patients shared their thoughts on the effects of the medicines in the first half-year of availability Monday afternoon at MinnMed’s downtown Minneapolis dispensary.
Patrick McClellan, a medical cannabis advocate who uses the medicine to treat muscle spasms and pain, said his symptoms have decreased drastically.
“What (advocates) asked for was safe and legal access to a medication that could potentially ease our suffering,” he said. “But I believe what we have received is much more than that. Not only do we have a nice, clean, safe facility, but we also have high-quality medication.”
Duluth resident Jess Blake has hopes of returning to work as a middle school social studies teacher. She calls her life pre-medical cannabis her “dark days.”
“And I don’t mean depression,” Blake said. “I mean I couldn’t function.”
Since July, Blake said her friends and family have seen dramatic changes in her lifestyle.
“My friend came over one day and I said something sassy, and she said ‘you have your Jess-ness back,’” she said. “So now when my friends come to stay with me, they don’t have to stay with me to take care of me. They can come to enjoy my company.”
The benefits notwithstanding, there are still hurdles patents must overcome. David Dailey attended a wedding in New Hampshire but, despite his cannabis medications being legal in both states, he could not bring it with him on the airplane due to federal regulations.
“Those were the hardest days so far,” Dailey said.
Prices continue to be a hurdle for patients, as all medical cannabis expenses remain out-of-pocket. McClellan and others have said cutting rates in half would be enough to make the drug accessible for the average person.
“I wouldn’t be able to afford it, but my school held a benefit for me,” Blake said.
Recent advances in Minnesota have yielded strains of marijuana high in CBD, which is one of two major chemicals used medicinally. The other, THC, is also used, but is more known recreationally for its intoxicating effects.
Dr. Laura Bultman, the chief medical officer of MinnMed, said cultivating strains of marijuana high in CBD can help curb costs, but what will really help increase affordability is increased enrollment and access. MinnMed has two dispensaries open, in Minneapolis and Rochester, and will open two more — in Moorhead and the outer Twin Cities suburbs — later this year.
LeafLine Labs has opened its Eagan location, and will open locations in Hibbing, St. Cloud and St. Paul by July 2016.
Manny Munson-Regala, CEO of LeafLine Labs, agreed expanding awareness and increasing patient enrollment is the biggest opportunity for the medical cannabis industry in the coming months.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. How do we help increase patient access in a cost-effective way?” he said. “The biggest challenge (in Minnesota) is logistical. Both (companies) need to help educate people, along with the Department of Health, about the program.”
As of Sunday, there are 837 medical cannabis patients registered with the state health department, and 472 registered health care practitioners that can recommend cannabis treatment. Munson-Regala said that puts Minnesota as the best state in the country for percentage of registered practitioners.
“It’s not going to be every single physician. That’s not realistic,” he said.
But in studying trends in other medical cannabis states, Munson-Regala said many states see a spike in patient registration 18 to 24 months after implementation of the program.
When numbers do go up, Munson-Regala said Minnesota patients stand to benefit from the state’s unique approach to marijuana.
“I think it’s very fascinating that we have two companies in the state with the highest-yielding CDB plants in the country, maybe the world,” he said. “In Minnesota, we focus on the word ‘medical’ in medical cannabis. So (LeafLine Labs) grows a lot more high CDB cannabis in our plants, as I assume MinnMed does. There’s nothing wrong with the recreational industry, but (the lack of one in Minnesota) helps guide you. When you’re focused on health and not a high, it helps drive your decisions and operational requirements.”