Minnesota's medical cannabis program rolling out slowly amid hope, anger and confusion
On Wednesday, Minnesota steps into the strange new world of the marijuana business.
Never mind that the federal government says marijuana is as dangerous as heroin, putting both in the Schedule 1 category of controlled substances. Starting Wednesday, pot pills will go on sale as medical marijuana.
“I must say this is really very odd. We are talking about a Schedule 1 drug,” said Beth Hundley of Golden Valley, who will be buying the marijuana for her epileptic 3-year-old daughter.
The little pills contain more uncertainty than any medicine has before it.
They can’t be made by big companies, which won’t touch an illegal drug — so Minnesota has licensed two home-grown startups to do it.
They are not covered by health insurance. Doctors won’t prescribe them, and pharmacies can’t sell them — so they require their own separate stores.
They even have their own state agency, the Office of Medical Cannabis.
As the marijuana rollout approaches, the sellers and makers of the pills don’t know what to expect. But they are driven by the vision of helping thousands of suffering patients, who will pay up to $500 a month for the medicine.
“It’s not easy being a trailblazer,” said Manny Munson-Regala, CEO of LeafLine Labs, which operates a marijuana facility in Cottage Grove.
The program begins
Here’s how it’s supposed to work.
Minnesota is among 23 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana for medical use, and on Wednesday, dispensaries in Eagan and Minneapolis will open. Six others eventually will follow.
Patients will arrive by appointment. They will have notes from their doctors, certifying that they have a disease or condition legally approved to warrant the drug.
Each will have paid a $200 annual registration fee. The patients will be screened by a staff pharmacist to determine what dose is best for them.
“What a little grandmother needs is different from a 300-pound man,” said Dr. Andrew Bachman, LeafLine’s chief medical officer.
Most of the patients will get pills. Some will get marijuana oils or extracts. The Eagan location also will offer marijuana “vaping” with specialized pipes that vaporize the marijuana extract to be inhaled.
That system will make marijuana the most difficult medicine to obtain — by far.
Every doctor in Minnesota can prescribe painkillers, but only 9 percent of them said they would participate in the marijuana certification program, according to a May survey by the Minnesota Medical Association.
Every one of the approximately 1,200 pharmacies in the state sells drugs, but only the eight dispensaries will sell medical marijuana.
And it will be impossible to get for thousands of Minnesotans who are in pain but for conditions that were not included in the law legalizing medical marijuana passed this year by the Legislature.
“My pain does not fit their criteria,” said Rob Youcha of St. Francis, an emergency medical technician who suffered injuries in an ambulance accident in 1998.
The impact ruptured discs in his spine, leaving him with a nearly constant stabbing sensation.
“Have you ever had a bad tooth and then gotten something cold on it?” Youcha asked. “It’s like that. It knocks you right over.”
But spinal injuries are not on the list of qualifying conditions. So instead of smoking marijuana, he gobbles painkillers by the handful.
“It’s OK for me to take 1,000 mg of morphine every day, and eight mg of Dilaudid every three hours, and MS Contin every five hours,” said Youcha bitterly. But marijuana is not OK.
“It’s strike three. I am out,” said Youcha.
As of last week, there are more Minnesota doctors — 203 — than patients — 65 — registered for the program. But officials say that’s not a low number.
“This is not a race. We are rolling this out slowly,” said Michelle Larson, director of the Office of Medical Cannabis.
The combination of cost, limited availability, lack of physicians and restrictive conditions account for the number of patients who have signed up so far.
A LeafLine spokesman said the company expects demand to follow a “hockey stick” model — starting slowly, then sharply increasing as the program is better understood.
But for now, almost everyone normally involved in medicine is keeping marijuana at arm’s length.
Doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, insurance companies and even some patients worry about the quasi-legality and believe there is a shortage of evidence that the drugs work.
Allina Hospitals, for example, has declared that it will not allow medical marijuana in its buildings.
It can’t be taken across state lines. “That would be a federal offense,” said Angela Garin of St. Paul, who will soon be giving the drug to her epileptic son daily. “We are essentially prisoners in our own state.”
Federal officials have said they won’t prosecute crimes related to medical marijuana — yet they have busted some marijuana dispensaries in California.
Police will be thrust into puzzling situations. For example, a worker could be arrested for having a single marijuana seed in her shoe — after working all day to tending thousands of plants in a marijuana factory.
That possibility has occurred to Craig Woolery, chief of police of Cottage Grove, which is host to one of the state’s two new marijuana factories.
“We are seeking a legal opinion from the county attorney’s office about that,” he said.
One family’s story
Paddy Garin was talking last week about marijuana’s effect on his 6-year-old son when he suddenly froze. The boy climbed into his lap, twitched a few times and drew his hand to his mouth — the first flash of lightning in a coming storm.
“Watch his head! The wall!” snapped Garin’s wife, Angela.
The father instinctively shielded the boy as if from an attacker — but the attack was coming from the inside.
For a minute, the parents stared intently as the epileptic seizure rolled through their son, Paxton. Then it was over.
“I can always tell when it happens,” said Paddy Garin, gently rocking the boy. “His eyes go bam!” He snapped his fingers apart, showing how the pupils dilate and then shrink back to normal.
As seizures go, this was an easy one. No head-banging against walls, no ambulance rides, no bleeding.
“Are you all better?” the father asked. The boy threw some Legos on the floor. His dad smooched him three times — kiss-kiss-kiss.
Last year, the couple was desperate to find help for Paxton. He was having 10 seizures a day and could not eat, talk or use the toilet by himself. They traveled to Oregon, which allows nonresidents to buy marijuana. Paxton took some marijuana oil, mixed in with a banana.
Angela Garin gets a dreamy look in her eye when she describes what happened next.
The seizures let up. Paxton calmed down. “We were able to do things. We went to the aquarium. We went to the coast,” she said.
The boy even drew his first — and only — crayon drawing. “He was able to eat by himself. It was so exciting,” his mother said.
But the marijuana wore off, and Paxton regressed. “Our therapists here have been working 1½ years to get him to feed himself,” she said.
Come Wednesday, the family will visit a dispensary to buy their first bit of Minnesota marijuana.
It will be a boon for them, but Angela Garin wondered if other patients would feel the same way.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Will the doctors certify it? Can people afford it? Can they get to the dispensaries? My god, we have two for the whole state! Do we know what the efficacy is? If it’s cheaper to get it on the street, are you going to sign up for it?”
Paddy Garin opened the front door to let a visitor out. The boy fell to the floor, his legs thrashing.
“No,” sighed Paddy. “That’s just a tantrum.”
“Daddy’s not leaving, honey,” Angela Garin said.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.