When Minnesota's medical marijuana program opened its doors to pain patients this summer, the hope was that people in pain, and a program struggling with growing pains, might be able to help each other.
That was three months ago. Since then, pain patients have rushed to a program that has battled sluggish enrollment and high prices since its launch last year. Half the people currently enrolled are pain patients, and while it's too soon to know if that's enough to save Minnesota's cannabis program, many patients say the program has already saved them.
"It's given me my life back," said Jeanne Luck, one of the 1,667 Minnesotans who have turned to the Office of Medical Cannabis in search of relief from intractable pain — severe, chronic pain that is not eased by the usual painkillers, opioids or therapy.
Luck, a mother of three and a former nurse practitioner, uses cannabis oil to ease symptoms of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a painful genetic condition that affects her body's connective tissues and forced her into a series of joint surgeries.
Minnesota's medical marijuana program is one of the most restrictive in the country and one of the smallest. As of last Friday, 3,331 patients had enrolled, half of them pain patients. Visits to the state's eight cannabis clinics doubled in August, the first month that pain patients were allowed into the program.
Luck, who has been in pain since childhood, remembers going to the clinic for the first time, exhausted, hurting and dealing with unpleasant opiate side effects. It had been at least 10 years, she estimated, since she'd gotten a full night's sleep.
For her, medical marijuana has "been a miracle," she said. "This is perfect, perfect medicine ... It doesn't hang you over, it won't kill you, it gives you quality of life, energy to do the things you want to do today and tomorrow."
The two companies that have spent tens of millions of dollars to get growing operations and clinics off the ground are hoping that an influx of pain patients might help them turn a profit one of these years. This, however, won't be that year.
The two manufacturers selected by the Health Department to grow, refine and sell the state's entire cannabis crop, Minnesota Medical Solutions and LeafLine Labs, lost a combined $5.2 million in 2015, according to the Associated Press.
Financial losses 'deceiving'
MinnMed CEO Dr. Kyle Kingsley said last week that the company will lose millions more this year, and will continue to lose money for "quite a while." But those numbers won't reflect the new patients streaming into the program, he said.
"The losses are deceiving because of the current influx of patients," said Kingsley, who invited pain patients to the company's downtown Minneapolis clinic last week to celebrate the three-month anniversary of the program's expansion. "We're confident this change to intractable pain is going to be the difference."
The program could accept even more patients in the near future. Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger is evaluating nine conditions the public petitioned to bring into the program and will decide by Dec. 1 which — if any — will join the 10 conditions that currently qualify Minnesotans to take medical cannabis.
At a series of public hearings this summer, Minnesotans made their case to the Health Department for expanding the program to include: arthritis, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, diabetes, phantom limb pain, insomnia and schizophrenia, as well as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome — as a qualifying condition in its own right, apart from intractable pain.
In an October report to the commissioner, a panel of medical professionals and patient advocates concluded that for many of the proposed conditions, existing treatments may not be effective or may come with debilitating medical risks of their own.
Because marijuana remains an outlawed federal substance, there is relatively little U.S. research to help guide public policy debates such as this one.
"Potential harms [from abuse of marijuana] need to be weighed against the potential harms of treatments currently available to these patients," the panel wrote in its October summary. "For example, many of the chronic drugs given to children with seizures or autism have negative cognitive effects and addiction concerns. There are similar concerns with medications to treat other diagnoses as well."
Jody Taylor-Haye learned about the consequences of standard treatments when she suffered a severe allergic reaction to the opioids she was prescribed for her degenerative disc disease. She was left with no options for pain relief until a friend suggested she sign up for the medical cannabis program.
"I sat in my chair every day with a heating pad. My family felt they were losing me," she said. Still, she said, she was leery of the idea of trying marijuana.
In the end, she was "pleasantly surprised and pleased that it was easy as pie" to get certified and enroll in the program. In a matter of months, she said, she went from taking 18 medications to taking three, plus cannabis.
"I'm living again," she said. "I'm able to do everything I used to do — laundry, play with my kids … I'm not stuck in a chair all day. … Medical cannabis has been the best thing that's ever happened to me."