The first registered medical marijuana patient in Minnesota toddled across sunlit grass and into his mother’s arms.
Three-year-old Wyatt sputtered happily as Jessica Hauser swung him up, up into the air to settle on her hip.
Then Wyatt’s eyelids fluttered and his head thumped against her shoulder as he sagged in her arms. Another seizure. One of hundreds that rip through his developing brain daily, endangering his life, unchecked by all the epilepsy treatments the family has tried.
Wyatt suffered seven seizures in the time it took his parents to explain why they’ve already booked an appointment to buy cannabis oil for their son this Wednesday, the first day it will be legal.
“No seizures. Doesn’t that sound good?” Jessica crooned to her youngest.
Minnesota joins 23 other states bucking the federal laws that still classify cannabis as a dangerous, addictive substance with no possible medical worth. But launching an entire industry from scratch — in a year — hasn’t been simple.
Doctors have balked at helping patients sign up for the program; two-thirds of physicians in a June survey by the Minnesota Medical Association said they planned to opt out. Patients, who can’t sign up for medical cannabis until their primary doctor, nurse or other health care provider certifies that they have a qualifying condition, have searched frantically for second opinions. One even took out a Craigslist ad, but found no takers. The Health Department rejected an attempt by two doctors to set up a clinic with the sole purpose of certifying cannabis patients. Despite appeals from the physicians, the state maintained that the only health care providers who should certify patients are the ones who will be monitoring their care in the long term.
The state’s two medical marijuana manufacturers, hand-picked by the Health Department, have harvested more than a ton of cannabis, stockpiling pills, oils and tinctures, despite the fact that there were more Minnesotas eligible to play for the Vikings than to buy medical marijuana for most of June.
As of Friday, the number of patients approved to buy medical marijuana stood at 65, out of 139 who have been certified and have begun the registration process.
Meanwhile, 203 health care providers have registered with the state and are ready to certify. It’s a start, said Michelle Larson, director of the Office of Medical Cannabis. For months, her office has been repeating the mantra: This is not a race, this is a rollout.
But her staff feels for the frantic patients who call in to their office, searching for a doctor willing to help them sign up.
“At the end of the day, we’re empathetic to people who need this,” Larson said. “If it works for them, that’s our success.”
Differing laws nationwide
The country is a crazy-quilt of clashing marijuana laws and policies. Medical marijuana is legal in Michigan, illegal in Wisconsin and legal again once you cross the Minnesota line. Iowa allows parents to give their children one type of marijuana oil to treat their seizures — from strains of the plant high in cannabidiol (CBD), but low in the THC compound that gives marijuana its buzz. But there’s nowhere in Iowa to buy that oil legally, and no provisions for the many children, like Wyatt, who use cannabis oil that does contain THC.
Head west and recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. California’s medical marijuana program is almost two decades old.
Every state has its own rules about who can buy cannabis, and for what purpose. It can be frustrating for patients who have tried the therapy in other states, or who have a condition that is covered by one state’s medical marijuana program, but not Minnesota’s.
The Minnesota program was designed to be as clinical as possible. There will be no baggies of plant material and no budtenders in tie-dye T-shirts discussing dosages with elderly chemotherapy patients. The medicine will be grown in just two locations, refined into laboratory-tested pills and liquids and dispensed by pharmacists at the eight clinics.
In Minnesota, medical cannabis is available only to patients with one of the nine medical conditions state lawmakers selected last year: certain terminal illnesses, certain cancers, seizure disorders, severe muscle spasms, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, HIV/AIDS, Tourette syndrome and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
As the program rolls out, Minnesota law enforcement will be watching.
“Many people want to minimize the downside of marijuana abuse,” said Champlin Police Chief David Kolb, who sits on the state’s Task Force on Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research. “The point is, it’s an addictive substance.”
The current law was written with law enforcement concerns in mind. The state’s two marijuana manufacturers have taken elaborate precautions. You have to pass a retina scanner lock to reach the crop at LeafLine Labs’ Cottage Grove facility. The head of security at Minnesota Medical Solutions is a former Secret Service agent.
But Kolb and other law enforcement officials are worried less about the limited program the state has today, than the possibility that it might expand in the near future.
“If you’re driving down the road, would you like it [to be] more likely or less likely that the other driver just smoked marijuana?” he said. “If you legalize it, you just made it more likely.”
A new era
Minnesota’s first medical cannabis dispensary is a bright, airy space, decorated in warm wood, soft pastels and art celebrating its setting in downtown Minneapolis. Toys for the youngest patients fill a corner of the waiting room and one of the consultation rooms.
“We’re thrilled to introduce a new era here,” Dr. Kyle Kingsley, an emergency room physician and co-founder of Minnesota Medical Solutions, told visiting media on a Friday tour of the facility, located in the old League of Catholic Women building on S. 9th Street.
The clinic will open its doors at 12 a.m. Wednesday, ready to help the patients who want access to medical marijuana the moment it’s legal. At least 15 people have booked appointments Wednesday, Kingsley said. Each one will meet with a doctor, nurse or pharmacist for about an hour and leave with a one-week, or one-month supply of cannabis — and a gentle caution that marijuana might not be a magic bullet for everyone.
“A lot of the industry perpetuates the myth that cannabis is the miracle cure, and that is most definitely not the case,” Kingsley said. “For some patients, this is going to be a substantial improvement in their lives. Terminally ill folks, it’s a very, very good treatment for them. Pediatric seizure patients, there are segments of that population that are really going to respond to this. But managing that expectation is going to be very difficult. … We very much emphasize to folks, ‘This is not a guaranteed cure.’ ”
‘Deserves this chance’
The Hauser family, which helped fight for the legislation as it was being debated more than a year ago, has more than just hope that medical marijuana will help their little boy. They have the sight of Wyatt, chasing a green bouncy ball across the lawn. He started walking last year, after Jessica Hauser brought him to Oregon for a five-week cannabis oil trial.
It helped, they think. He recognized himself in the mirror for the first time. The seizures eased a bit. Some of the benefits — like walking — continued even after he stopped using the oil and came home.
Wyatt, who suffers from infantile spasms, had tried standard epilepsy treatments ranging from Klonopin to steroids to specialized diets. There were drugs that gave him screaming insomnia, drugs that actually made seizures worse, and drugs that forced his parents to darken the entire house as they pushed their miserable little boy around and around in his stroller, trying to comfort him through the side effects.
“We want you to sleep and eat and be happy,” Jessica said to Wyatt, secure on her hip as he came out of yet another seizure.
After everything they’ve tried, a few drops of cannabis mixed with cooking oil didn’t sound like such a radical therapy to them.
“Wyatt deserves this chance,” she said. “But so do all the people that need it and don’t have access to it yet