Two weeks before the launch of Minnesota's medical marijuana program, there are more doctors signed up for the program than patients.
As of Friday, the state had enrolled 14 patients in the program, out of the 65 so far who have been certified by their doctors to participate. That's nearly double the eight patients who managed to get signed up in the first week of enrollment, but far short of the 5,000 patients the state had estimated might try the treatment in the program's first years.
There was a sharp increase in the number of doctors and other health care professionals signing up to enroll patients in the program. As the second week of enrollment wound down, 162 practitioners had contacted the state and 70 had been authorized to certify patients to use medical cannabis.
The problem, for many patients, is finding those willing doctors.
"We're suffering, and no one is helping us," said Jonathan Holmgren of Spring Lake Park, who was unable to get his primary care doctor or his gastroenterologist to fill out the paperwork confirming that he has Crohn's disease — one of nine conditions that will qualify patients to participate in the program.
Both doctors were willing, he was told, but their health care network — HealthPartners — was still drafting its medical cannabis policy. In a statement, HealthPartners said its doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners can participate in the medical cannabis program if they choose.
Holmgren spent hours at the Legislature last year, lobbying for legalization of the drug he credits not just with easing the painful symptoms of his condition, but with saving his life.
Now, he says, instead of celebrating his chance to finally buy his medication legally, he's frantically networking with other patients, comparing notes about doctors who might be willing to help him get into the program. "We're really frustrated," he said.
The health care network, which serves more than a million patients a year, said that while medical professionals are free to participate in the program, there might be some confusion without a specific policy. The network will spend a few weeks hammering out its own certification procedures, a spokesman said.
"Since this is such a new program, we are working with clinicians and developing a system to assess patients that can be applied across our organization," a company statement said. "We hope to be able to give individual patients more definite information within the next several weeks."
Patients can begin receiving medical marijuana July 1 when the first cannabis clinics open in Minneapolis and Eagan. Six more clinics will open statewide in the months after that.
Minnesota's law was written to discourage patients from doctor-shopping in search of a certifying physician. But since the law also allows physicians, hospitals and medical practices to opt out of the program, many patients have been left with no other choice.
Since the Health Department cannot disclose the names of certifying physicians, it makes the search for certification even harder.
Most of the large medical practices in the state are still studying the medical cannabis issue.
Allina Health will allow physicians and practice groups to decide individually whether to register as certifiers for medical cannabis. But Allina's hospitals will remain cannabis-free zones.
"Our providers and hospital staff will not be authorized to store or administer medical cannabis or assist patients in taking medical cannabis in the hospital," the health group said in a statement Monday.
Mayo Clinic policy allows physicians and practices to opt in or out of the program as they choose. In a statement, Mayo officials noted: "Mayo Clinic has developed a policy and associated procedures to guide providers who choose to participate in the program."
Patients can buy 30-day supplies of the drug in pill or liquid form, not in its raw plant form. Smoking cannabis in Minnesota remains illegal.
For more information about the program, visit the Office of Medical Cannabis at mn.gov/medicalcannabis or call 651-201-5598.