Minnesota Reluctantly Legalizes Medical Marijuana

[Please note: this is a reprint Op-Ed from last year that is meant to be used as a background tool in explaining medical marijuana’s benefits for terminally ill patients, in reference to today’s article on women leaders in the Cannabis industry]

On Wednesday, July 1, 2015, Minnesota will join 23 states and the District of Columbia to legalize medical marijuana. In a survey by the Minnesota Medical Association, two-thirds of physicians said they planned to opt out of prescribing medical marijuana, leaving many patients scrambling for a physician who will offer the drug. Physicians in Minnesota should be forced to prescribe medical marijuana to patients who meet the criteria.

Every doctor in Minnesota can prescribe painkillers, but only 9% of them said they would participate in the marijuana certification program.

As of last week, 104 physicians, nurses or health care professionals had registered with the Minnesota Department of Health Medical Cannabis office, ready and willing to certify their patients, but the department has withheld the list of names from the public, leaving patients searching frantically for other options. Daniel Solem, a retired veteran battling cancer and AIDS, was turned down by three different doctors – his primary care physician, his specialist, and a new doctor he contacted. All said their group practices had decided not to participate in the state program. “I’m not one of those guys to give up. I talked to 25 to 30 doctors on the phone and I heard, ‘Nope.’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Won’t touch it.’” He said. “I’m a very sick person who moved across the country. …I’m getting a door shut in my face.” Many physicians, or practices, are reluctant to certify patients due to the stigma attached to marijuana stores perceived as being seedy pill mills. John Nicolazzo, co-founder and COO of Minnesota Certification Clinic, affirmed that “doctors want to have a certain line of separation” between their regular practices and the business of cannabis.

Minnesota’s medical marijuana program is considered one of the strictest in the country, making it the most difficult medicine to obtain in the state.

Minnesota’s medical marijuana is tightly regulated and residents must meet one of nine debilitating conditions to qualify for certification which includes terminating illnesses, such as cancer or AIDS, Tourette syndrome, sclerosis, and seizures. Marijuana plants contain dozens of compounds known as cannabinoids, and there are five cannabinoids that are especially effective in relieving the symptoms of these illnesses than other prescription drugs.

Patients are not covered by health insurance so they will have to cover the entire cost by themselves. Since marijuana is illegal at the federal level, most banks and credit card companies won’t process transactions for it, so patients will need to use cash to purchase the drug.

Patients must pay a $200 registration fee to the state to sign up for the program. Then, patients need to pay the provider of the marijuana for the drugs purchased, which will cost between $300 and $500 per month, depending on dosage and exact type of medicine. One reason the cost is so high is because the state does not allow patients to smoke the marijuana in plant form so companies need to use expensive equipment to convert plants into pill or oil forms – the only kinds that are legal under the new state law.

Patients are already on a difficult path to obtaining certification.

On paper, Kathy Schroeder’s multiple sclerosis and glaucoma – two of the nine conditions that qualify – made her a perfect fit. But, like many residents, the 63-year old struggled to get a doctor’s signature to sign up for the program. She had to prod a second doctor, but isn’t sure whether she can afford a month’s worth of medicine.

In the compromise legislation that made medical marijuana legal, the Senate and House couldn’t decide on how many clinics to have. The compromise was eight –one clinic would be located in each of Minnesota’s congressional districts. Since several districts are in the metro area, four of the clinics are clustered in and around the Twin Cities, meaning that people will face long drives to reach one of the dispensaries. Schroeder will make a 180-mile round trip Wednesday from her rural home to MinnMed’s Minneapolis facility. The first two dispensaries to open are in Minneapolis and Eagan. It could be several months before all of them are up and running.

Minnesota should fully embrace the legalization of medical marijuana to meet the broad scope of patients’ medical conditions, particularly for those on tight budgets or who don’t classify for one of the nine conditions stipulated by the state, who would otherwise fully benefit from the medicine.

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