Patients enrolled in Minnesota’s medical marijuana program say the treatment helps — if they can afford it.
Almost all the patients and health care providers who responded to a new Minnesota Department of Health survey reported that medical cannabis offered mild to substantial relief, and few side effects, for every illness currently allowed in the program. The survey comes as the program approaches its first anniversary struggling with sluggish enrollment, skeptical doctors, high prices and few clinics.
Monday’s 107-page report included pages of feedback from patients and physicians.
“The first time it relieved my symptoms in over 15 years, it brought tears to my eyes,” one patient wrote.
Some 241 patients responded to the survey, out of 1,442 currently enrolled in the program. Ninety percent reported at least some benefit and almost half reported substantial relief. About 20 percent experienced some physical or mental side effects, ranging from dry mouth and fatigue to feeling “high” or paranoid.
John Carroll of Minneapolis said cannabis oil has allowed him to completely wean himself off the prescription opioids he was taking to ease muscle spasms.
“This is real medicine,” said Carroll, who has been in the program for about nine months. Unlike painkillers, which he said stopped helping him, cannabis “works every time, all the time. It’s amazing.”
Cannabis gave him less of a buzz than the painkillers did, he said, and also helped with opioid withdrawal symptoms. He eventually called his doctor’s office and told them he wouldn’t be refilling his opioids prescription.
“When I called them to say I don’t need them anymore, … They said I’m the only one, out of all their patients who’s ever said they don’t need any more,” he said. “That’s really sad. I feel bad for people.”
Minnesota will expand its program in August to patients suffering pain that has not responded to traditional drugs or therapies. Pain patients can begin enrolling in July, if their health care provider agrees that they qualify.
Minnesota’s program is smaller and more restrictive than those in many of the 24 states that have legalized medical marijuana. Two companies selected by the health department grow the state’s entire medical cannabis crop and refine it into pills and liquids. (Smoking the raw plant remains illegal.) To get into the program, patients must have a doctor certify that they have one of nine grave illnesses, ranging from muscle spasms to epilepsy to AIDS. The cost of a month’s supply can range from less than $100 to well over $1,000, which patients must pay out of pocket.
Despite the program’s limited scope — a St. Cloud clinic that opened Monday is just the state’s fourth — patients say it is helping.
“It’s nice to feel human again,” one patient wrote.
Another commented: “Thank you for helping me get my appetite back, and getting rid of the grumps and nausea.”
Still, many voiced frustration over the high cost of a medication that no insurance will cover. Outstate patients also face long commutes to the nearest clinic.
LeafLine Labs, which runs the store that opened Monday in St. Cloud, is making plans to launch two more. Under state law, Minnesota will have eight cannabis clinics, all of which are supposed to be up and running by July 1.
The survey is not a clinical study and there is no way to tell whether some patients are simply reporting a placebo effect: feeling better because they expect to feel better. Tom Arneson, research manager for the Office of Medical Cannabis, said the survey responses match the feedback he hears from patients who have contacted his office.
“People want proof that medical cannabis works. This can’t do that. It won’t do that,” Arneson said. The survey is part of the health department’s ongoing effort to gather data about patients’ experience in the program. Reading through the results “reminds us that these are real people who are suffering, and that’s what this is all about.”
To read the full report, visit bit.ly/1U4YR5O.