Minnesota's first medical marijuana patients say the relief they've gotten from their newly legalized medication has been worth the high prices, long drives and awkward conversations.

"The change in my life has been incredible," said Marguerite Norton Furlong of Mahtomedi, who enrolled in the program in August to treat her Crohn's disease and muscle spasms. "I pretty much went from not being able to leave my house … for me to be sitting here, at this time of the day, talking with all of you, is a very happy day."

Norton Furlong was one of five patients who gathered Monday at Minnesota Medical Solutions' clinic in downtown Minneapolis to share their experiences with medical cannabis in the hope of easing some of the lingering stigma that still surrounds the drug.

Minnesota legalized medical marijuana on July 1 and the first months of the program were shaky, marked by low enrollment, rising prices and doctors and clinics that balked at certifying patients to use a drug the federal government still considers an illicit substance.

For Norton Furlong, medical cannabis has meant the difference between being housebound for long stretches of the day and being able to travel for work, join in family holiday gatherings or just go to her kids' soccer games.

Before, she said, she'd have to explain, " 'Mom's sick, mom's not feeling well.' You'd just tell your children, 'This is Mom's bad day. I won't be able to make it,' and that's a sad feeling to have. Now, [I'm] able to say, 'When do you want me to be there?' "

Sarah Wellington, a mother of three from St. Paul, uses medical cannabis to treat the multiple sclerosis that had sometimes confined her to bed.

For her, the new treatment "meant trips to the park, it meant we went fishing, we went out, we did things. I went to school conferences," she said. "It's made a huge improvement in my ability to stay out past 6:15, because I'm not in so much pain from the constant spasms."

Wellington is a teacher, and the idea of discussing her cannabis use in public was the source of "a huge amount of fear." She said she doesn't use her medication during school hours, even though that often means she is in pain by the end of the school day.

"It was interesting, telling my 13-year-old that I take medical cannabis," she said. "That's why I'm talking, so that it can be a conversation that other families have."

For Jessica Blake of Duluth, who is battling a cancerous brain tumor, medical marijuana not only eased the pain and nausea of her treatments, it helped her regain her sense of self.

Before she enrolled in the medical cannabis program in July, "I had what I called my dark days. My dark days were not depressed, but they were when I couldn't problem-solve. I couldn't manage my own medication and someone had to stay with me all the time," said Blake, a middle school social studies teacher.

"Two weeks after I started taking [cannabis], I started to be able to stay alone, problem-solve, my handwriting is just like it used to be, I can take care of my dog, which is wonderful. I also have hopes now of going back to work. I never would have had that before."

Now, when her friends come to her house, she said, they come for a visit, or a hike, or a meal — not to take care of her.

"My friends and family have seen dramatic changes in me," she said. "My friend came over one day, and I said something sassy, and she said 'You have your Jess-ness back.' "

Expanding the program

Medical cannabis has been legal for months, but patients still worry about how their employers, friends, family and doctors will react. Of the five MinnMed patients, four had to switch doctors to find someone to certify them to enroll with the Office of Medical Cannabis.

Minnesota's medical cannabis program is one of the most restrictive in the nation. To enroll in the program, a medical professional must certify that a patient has one of nine qualifying conditions. Medical marijuana is grown by two companies, selected by the state, and sold at three clinics run by those companies. Cannabis can only be sold in pills, liquids or oils — not the raw plant material.

Next August, the Minnesota Health Department will expand the program to people suffering intractable pain — a move that could bring thousands of new patients into the program. Five more clinics are scheduled to open around the state by next summer.

The price of a month's supply of medical cannabis can range from less than $100 to more than $1,000, depending on the patient and the condition. Unlike other prescriptions, no insurance plan covers the cost, and three of the five patients Monday said they try to spread a month's supply of medication across two months.

That's what Patrick McClellan has been doing. He was one of the first patients waiting to pick up his prescription when the Minneapolis clinic opened its doors at midnight on July 1.

Since then, he said, the vaporizer he carries on a chain around his neck has not only eased the painful spasms of his muscular dystrophy, but has helped him wean off some of his prescriptions and reduce the dosage of others.

"My neurologist told me that I now look better than I have in the last 10 years," he said.

Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008