When the Minnesota Department of Health set out to survey patients about the state's new medical marijuana program, responses rolled in from every corner of the state.
Of the 1,361 people who filled out the online survey earlier this year, 70 percent — nearly 1,000 — said they were likely to register for the Minnesota Medical Cannabis Program when enrollment opens this summer.
Minnesota is just months away from limited legalization of medical marijuana, and this survey offers the first glimpse at the number of patients who might enroll, where they live and what conditions they hope to treat with the drug.
For the people and companies scrambling to get the medical marijuana program up and running, setting up the complex, costly system without real market data has been like "building the plane while we're flying it; changing the car's tires while we're driving down the road," said Assistant Health Commissioner Manny Munson-Regala.
Now, Munson-Regala said, they can see that "people are actually going to show up. We're not just building a theoretical construct. There are actual people interested in participating in the program. Seventy percent of the respondents said 'Yep, we're registering.' "
More than half of the patients who responded said they have multiple sclerosis or other conditions that cause severe muscle spasms. Epilepsy and cancer were the next most common conditions among the patients who responded, followed by glaucoma, Crohn's disease and terminal illnesses.
Survey responses came from 92 percent of the state's counties, with one ZIP code in Brainerd — an hour from the nearest marijuana dispensary — turning in more responses than any other spot in the state, including any single ZIP code in the Twin Cities.
The average age of prospective cannabis users was 42. Nearly 10 percent were children 18 years old or younger, while just under 9 percent were ages 65 or older.
Half of the respondents said they were on public assistance programs like Medicaid or Social Security disability, which would allow them to enroll for $50, rather than the standard $200 fee.
The survey results aren't scientific, but Munson-Regala said the state is now planning for roughly 1,000 people to sign up when enrollment opens in June.
A clue for vendors
For the two companies that will grow and refine the state's entire marijuana crop, the survey was a snapshot of where at least 1,300 prospective customers live and what sort of diseases they hope to treat with the drug.
"We found the volume of the patient response encouraging," said Kyle Kingsley, CEO of Minnesota Medical Solutions (MinnMed), one of the state's two designated cannabis suppliers. The state's results, he said, were in line with the responses MinnMed is getting to the patient survey it is running on its own website — www.minnesotamedicalsolutions.com.
MinnMed plans to open its first medical cannabis distribution center in Minneapolis on July 1, in the former League of Catholic Women building on S. 9th Street, followed by three more clinic locations around the state throughout the summer.
The company expects to see hundreds of patients walk through the door on the first day, where they will be greeted by doctors and pharmacists in the secure facility.
"We're looking to have it be a really amazing experience, even on the first day," said Kingsley, an emergency room physician and company co-founder. "We will look nothing like Colorado or California. This is going to be the very opposite of that. This is a very medical experience, a very patient-driven experience … You're not going to have stoned 22-year-old 'budtenders' serving patients who are dying of cancer."
Pills and liquid only
Unlike states where patients might walk out of a dispensary with a bag of weed, Minnesota has legalized medical marijuana only in pill and liquid form. The manufacturers refining the cannabis plant into tinctures and pills will have to come up with very different formulas for different conditions — a cancer patient battling nausea from chemotherapy would get a very different blend of compounds than a small child with epilepsy.
The eight medical cannabis dispensing sites the law currently allows are planned for Eagan, Hibbing, Maple Grove, Minneapolis, Moorhead, Rochester, St. Cloud and St. Paul.
The survey confirmed that most patients do live near the population centers where the dispensaries will be located. In the case of Brainerd, 24 patients responded to the survey from the 56401 ZIP code — more than any other ZIP code — and the area is an hour away from the nearest clinic site. Patients in other parts of the state, like the southwest, face even longer drives.
After Brainerd, the largest number of responses came from ZIP codes in Minneapolis and St. Paul, with 22 and 19 responses, respectively. ZIP codes in Austin, Mankato and Moorhead came next with 17 responses each.