The United States is in the middle of its deadliest drug crisis ever — an opioid epidemic that claimed 52,000 lives in 2015 alone. To fight it, and decrease people’s dependence on opioid painkillers, it’s imperative to find alternative ways to help people manage their pain.
Many believe the answer is medical marijuana. Luckily, the state of Minnesota agrees.
However, although medical marijuana is legal here, that doesn’t mean it’s accessible. While our medical marijuana program for people with severe illnesses like cancer, ALS or multiple sclerosis is functional, the part for people like me who have intractable/chronic pain is a total nightmare to navigate.
You would assume people should visit their doctor to get access to medical marijuana. However, most doctors in Minnesota (even pain doctors) are not approved to certify anyone to take it, because their health care system employers prohibit them from doing so. (Doctors who treat people with the severe illnesses mentioned above are a different story.)
So, how do you find a doctor who will certify you? The state presumably has a list of doctors, but it won’t give that list to the public. Apparently, people in pain are supposed to just ask around at clinics until someone takes pity on them and gives them a name.
Thankfully, I lucked into a lead at my annual meeting with my pain clinic. But rather than engaging in a dialogue with me about it, my doctor just wordlessly slid a list of 23 statewide clinics covertly across the table. One name on the list had an asterisk by it. This was apparently “the one.” Nothing more was discussed — apparently, it was something my doctor wasn’t allowed to discuss.
So, I called “the one” and asked if I could set up an appointment. I was told I first needed to have my pain clinic fax over my medical records for the last six months. (While my pain clinic told me the exact opposite thing.)
Eventually, the two worked out their differences and I was asked to schedule a 90-minute appointment. However, because this appointment would be regarding my certification for the medical marijuana program, my insurance wouldn’t cover any of it, so it would cost me $844.
Once I’d had that appointment, I would have needed to wait for a certification e-mail from the state. Then I would have needed to fill out the online registration form and pay the certification fee of $200 (which must be renewed every year). After that, my account would need to be approved.
Once my account was approved, I would have needed to complete and submit a Patient Self-Evaluation Form to the state. (You need to submit a new form every time you request medical cannabis.) Once that was processed, I would have been able to visit the Cannabis Patient Center, where nothing is covered by insurance. (In fact, you can’t even take the cost of the cannabis as a medical expense on your federal taxes because under federal law, medical cannabis is not legal.)
Once I actually got my medical marijuana, I would have needed to return to the clinic in four weeks for another appointment my insurance would have refused to cover. This second visit would have cost me $450 (it’s shorter). Then I would need to return to the clinic in six months’ time for another $450 appointment, and would need to keep doing so every year thereafter in order to stay certified in the program.
In short, my start-up costs for the medical marijuana program in Minnesota would have been $1,944. That’s without purchasing any actual marijuana.
Imagine going through all of those steps when you are in horrible pain and can’t even think straight, and your ability to earn a living has likely been compromised (i.e., you don’t have $1,944 to do anything).
It’s impractical and cruel.
I get it. Good people were trying to do a good thing when they created this program. But it’s no surprise it’s struggling.
In attempting to create a program that keeps everyone happy, Minnesota has effectively created a trap-ridden gauntlet for its sickest citizens to navigate. Sadly, their success in doing so is contingent upon privilege, not pain.
Jennifer Kane lives in Minneapolis.