Medical marijuana is no miracle cure. The Hauser family knew that before they gave their toddler his first dose.
Wyatt Hauser of Woodbury was the first patient to be enrolled in Minnesota’s medical cannabis program last summer. While the fledgling industry struggled with low enrollment, high prices and a skeptical medical community, the 3-year-old swallowed cannabis oil mixed with applesauce three times a day as his parents waited to see if the treatment would help after every other epilepsy drug had failed.
More than six months later, seizures still wrack the boy’s developing brain, but the frequency has dwindled from hundreds a day to about 80. Every seizure “breaks my heart,” said his mother, Jessica Hauser. But in the lulls between, there are glimpses of a new Wyatt.
This Wyatt laughs. He makes eye contact. He climbs onto his mother’s lap to cuddle and chases after big brother E.J. He plays with toys. This Wyatt, whose family tried almost a dozen seizure medications with no success, has been weaned off them all.
“It’s just amazing,” Hauser said, passing her son brightly colored bits of plastic to feed the beeping green dinosaur that’s caught his attention. “We can tell when he’s happy. We can tell when he’s hungry. … He just has a better quality of life. He’s more alert, he’s more awake.”
Wyatt, who turns 4 in April, doesn’t speak and still wears a helmet to protect him from the seizures that drop him in his tracks without warning. But sometimes his mother catches him staring in wonder at the world around him, like someone whose staticky old TV set just picked up a clear signal.
For now, that’s miracle enough.
Success, but concerns
The first months of medical marijuana in Minnesota have seen quiet success stories: the chemotherapy and AIDS patients who regained their appetites; the hospice patients offered ease in their final days; the moms with debilitating illnesses who were able to show up again for their kids’ hockey games.
But there have also been questions and gnawing concerns. As of Friday, 968 patients had enrolled with the Department of Health’s Office of Medical Cannabis, a figure that might not represent the actual number of patients with access to the drug.
The cost of a month’s supply of cannabis — oil, pills or liquids only, since state law bans the smokable forms of the plant — ranges from less than $200 to well over $1,000. Some patients skip doses, trying to stretch their supply longer to save money. Others drop out of the program entirely, unable to afford medicine that no insurance program will cover.
“Of the people I’ve certified, somewhere between 20 to 30 percent have not obtained medical marijuana because of the cost,” said Dr. David Thorson, who certifies not only for his own patients but for other members of his White Bear Lake practice.
Medical marijuana also has been a fraught topic for Minnesota physicians, who worry about referring patients to a drug that is still illegal at the federal level and that hasn’t gone through years of clinical trials in this country. They worry about addiction and about adding marijuana to the mix when the medical community is already battling an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse.
Despite those concerns, Thorson, who also serves as president of the Minnesota Medical Association, still certifies some patients to give cannabis a try.
“It does work for some people, but it’s all anecdotal,” he said. “You have to say, ‘We’ve tried everything else.’ The humane thing to do is to say, ‘Here’s something else that might make a difference.’ ”
Many more patients
The next big step for medical marijuana in Minnesota will come in August, when the program will open to patients suffering intractable pain. Currently, medical cannabis can legally treat only nine serious, specific conditions, ranging from certain cancers and terminal illnesses to Crohn’s disease and muscle spasms.
In most states with medical marijuana programs, pain patients make up the bulk of the patient base. In Minnesota, it could bring tens of thousands of new patients into the program, within strict limits. Starting in July, health care practitioners can certify patients suffering intractable pain — severe, chronic pain that hasn’t responded to conventional treatments.
More customers would be welcome news for the two companies the state selected to grow, manufacture and sell its cannabis crop. LeafLine Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions have set up multimillion-dollar operations and opened three clinics around the state — with five more to come this summer — all for a patient base of fewer than 1,000.
But LeafLine CEO Manny Munson-Regala says one of the biggest challenges his company faces is getting the word out that Minnesota has a medical marijuana program.
“There’s a huge chunk of patients who just don’t know this program exists,” said Munson-Regala, who estimates that allowing pain patients access to the drug will increase business by about 100 patients a month.
Even without the pain patients, he estimates that 300,000 Minnesotans qualify for medical cannabis but don’t know about it, can’t afford it or aren’t interested in it.
The 23 states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal saw a combined $5.4 billion in sales in 2015, according to a February MarketWatch report. But neither LeafLine nor Minnesota Medical Solutions has reported a profit, and neither expects to in the near future. MinnMed’s parent company, Vireo, has also set up shop in New York and its investors are making plans to expand into as many as 20 other states.
“Is this medicine, and does it work? Absolutely,” Munson-Regala said. “There are people every day [who] would still be in pain, would still be having seizures [without] the product we provided. … So, for the patients, we have succeeded. We’d like to succeed with more of them, obviously.”
‘Worth a try’
Back home in Woodbury, Wyatt bounced along to the music blaring from one of his toys. There’s no way of knowing whether his improvement comes largely from the cannabis or the fact that he’s been weaned off other prescription drugs with powerful side effects. He might be doing better simply because he’s older.
His treatment costs about $220 a month, although the price will likely rise as he grows. His parents haven’t noticed any negative side effects from cannabis, and he’s never been stoned — not like he was when he was on phenobarbital or benzodiazepines.
The Hauser family still hopes to someday find something that stops Wyatt’s seizures cold. Until then, Jessica Hauser said, “we’re going to appreciate and savor the moments we have. [And] this amazing improvement in how Wyatt’s living his life right now.”
Other parents of sick children often ask her how Wyatt is doing, and whether their children should try medical cannabis.
“I always say it’s worth a try,” she said, looking down at her giggling son. “It’s not magical. It doesn’t work for everyone. It’s an investment. But it’s always worth a try.”