Minnesota’s two medical marijuana makers say it’s time the state program shed its restrictive reputation and let sick patients smoke cannabis.

The executives of LeafLine Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions want state lawmakers to legalize smokable medical marijuana when they gavel into session in February. The benefits, the executives say, are clear: Prices will plummet, enrollment will soar and patients will prosper.

“This is the single greatest step that can be taken to bring prices down for patients,” said Dr. Kyle Kingsley, founder of Minnesota Medical Solutions. “The addition of flower will save the Minnesota program. Right now, there’s still very low demand. The manufacturers are still losing money every year.”

The state’s medical cannabis program has been hamstrung by high costs since its inception. The 2014 bill signed into law by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton legalized medical marijuana in the form of pills and inhalable oils, not the smokable whole flower. Of the 33 states that have legalized medical marijuana, Minnesota is among just a few that have outlawed the whole flower.

The proposal is likely to face pushback at the State Capitol from critics who fear that providing the whole flower to medical marijuana recipients will pave the way for the legalization of marijuana for all adults. They also counter that the plant would be difficult to dose and hard to distinguish from illicit pot. And they argue there may be other ways to lower prices.

The legal drugs draw a high price because the manufacturers must process the plant to make them. Products range from $29 to $229 at LeafLine Labs and $23 to $236 at Minnesota Medical Solutions, depending on the quantity and strength. Making matters worse: Insurance companies do not cover medical marijuana.

Patients who use medical cannabis to treat chronic ailments may shell out hundreds of dollars per month to get the relief they need. With the addition of whole flower, those costs would likely be cut in half, the executives say.

“It does drop dramatically,” LeafLine Labs CEO Bill Parker said, pointing to Pennsylvania as a prime example. Pennsylvania added the whole plant to its program in August 2018. Before, the average patient spent $300 when they went to a dispensary.

As of Dec. 16, the average purchase was $120, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Those sorts of savings could be life-changing for patients like Patti McArdell, 56, of St. Paul, who uses medical cannabis to treat her depression, PTSD and chronic aches. She spends about $400 per month.

In addition to the lower price point, McArdell says the whole flower could provide greater relief, via the “entourage effect.” Put more simply, it’s the theory that the plant’s many compounds work in concert when taken together.

“You’re only getting one note out of the symphony” with the processed cannabis extracts, she said. “I think it would make a difference for everybody who’s on it.”

Prospects at the Capitol

It would also affect the manufacturers’ bottom lines. LeafLine Labs has never had a profitable year and Minnesota Medical Solutions turned a small profit in 2017 before posting a loss again in 2018. The whole flower would be cheaper to produce because it would require no processing, just third-party testing.

The companies expect financial setbacks next year as they each open four new dispensaries across the state, part of an approved program expansion that also includes the addition of two new qualifying conditions: chronic pain and age-related macular degeneration, a retinal condition that degrades vision over time.

Kingsley recently predicted a doubling of medical cannabis patients once the two new conditions are added in August. More than 18,000 patients are now enrolled in the program.

While the recent expansion addresses concerns of accessibility, it won’t help with affordability, notes state Rep. Heather Edelson, a Democrat from Edina who will author a bill to add flower to the medical program in the upcoming legislative session. The proposal was added as an amendment to a House omnibus bill last year but was struck in final negotiations.

“One of our biggest pushes will be to add plant to the program,” Edelson said.

The bill will have an easier path in the Democratic House — where members are expected to also push for recreational marijuana legalization — than it will in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“I think it’s going to be a tougher fight,” said state Sen. Michelle Benson, a Republican from Ham Lake who chairs a key Senate health and human services committee.

Senate Republicans want to hear from doctors and law enforcement about whether the flower could be dosed or appear distinct from illegal marijuana, Benson said. But she added that she might be open to compromise, such as allowing the use of flower for patients who have a terminal illness.

Chris Tholkes, interim director of the Office of Medical Cannabis at the state Department of Health, is also concerned about dosing. The extracted products are measured in milligrams, making it easier for pharmacists to advise patients at dispensaries, she said.

Citing product costs as the “biggest drawback to the program,” Tholkes said state health officials are gathering data to see if there are other ways to bring down prices.

“I think we need to do some digging into data and better study what’s driving those product costs so we can better understand what potential policy solutions we could offer to remedy that,” she said.