Five weeks into Minnesota's medical marijuana program, there are still more doctors than patients enrolled in the program -- but that could soon change.

As of Friday, 528 patients have been certified to legally treat their illnesses with cannabis pills or liquids, and 278 were fully enrolled in the program. The state has estimated that there are as many as 5,000 patients eligible and able to use the program, but many have struggled to find doctors willing to help them enroll.

To date, 345 doctors, nurses and other health care practitioners have registered with the state to enroll patients to participate in the program. Minnesota legalized medical marijuana on July 1 for certain patients, with certain medical conditions.

Eight medical cannabis clinics will open eventually around the state. The first three are operating in Minneapolis, Eagan and Rochester. A fourth will open within the next few months in Moorhead.

Patients cannot enroll in the program unless their doctor, or other primary caregiver, signs off on paperwork confirming to the state that they have one of nine serious medical conditions that will allow them to use medical cannabis. But the law allows doctors and clinics to opt out and many have done so. One recent poll by the Minnesota Medical Association found that 68 percent of physicians who responded said they would not participate.

Minnesota patients who do get into the program face the additional challenge of paying for their medicine. Cannabis is not covered by any major insurance plan, and one of the state's two manufacturers, Minnesota Medical Solutions announced a 15 to 20 percent price hike.

MinnMed’s CEO, Dr. Kyle Kingsley, said the company is planning to set up a nonprofit, CannaCare, to help patients pay for their medicine — which ranges in price from a few hundred dollars a month to more than $1,000. Despite the price hike, he said, “We are beyond competitive,” compared to other state medical cannabis programs.

“The medications are much more expensive to make than we anticipated,” he said. “But what surprised us was, we had a discount for [low-income] patients who qualify for medical assistance, and the proportion of patients who qualify for medical assistance was substantially higher than we anticipated.”

MinnMed will re-evaluate its prices in three months, Kingsley said. The state’s other medical cannabis company, LeafLine, has not increased its prices.

Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008

For more information about the program, visit the Health Department's Office of Medical Cannabis.