Minnesota’s medical marijuana program is struggling to retain patients burdened by the high costs of government-issued cannabis. Nearly one-fifth of the more than 490 residents enrolled in the program haven’t refilled their prescriptions in more than a month. Some have even returned to buying pot on the black market.
This dilemma isn’t endemic to Minnesota. Other states that legalized medical marijuana face similar issues because its Schedule 1 designation prevents insurance companies from covering cannabis treatment.
The issue is made worse in Minnesota by the fact that state legislators banned the use of leaves in the program and narrowed the list of qualifying conditions, leaving some sick patients with nothing to use but costly marijuana oils and pills. As a result, they have to pay hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars in out-of-pocket costs to manage the symptoms of chronic illness — including pain, nausea, muscle spasms, and seizures.
Entry into Minnesota’s program requires the payment of a $200 registration fee. After that, customers dole out monthly payments to one of two Minnesota-based medical marijuana companies. They can pick up their medicine from eight dispensaries, each of which is located in a Minnesota congressional district. Many of the clinics are clustered around the Twin Cities, leaving residents in rural and suburban areas at a disadvantage.
Patrick McClellan, a medical marijuana patient who has contemplated mixing street buds with his state-approved medicine, says he pays $264 per month for vaporizer pens, a treatment deemed legal. “That’s a car payment,” McClellan, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, told the Guardian. “What we’re talking about is an expensive designer drug that only the rich can afford right now.”
In recent weeks, Minnesota lawmakers have entertained a couple ideas, one of which will open up medical marijuana card registration to people with chronic conditions. That move could bring in a new wave of patients, allowing drug manufacturers to create a cheaper product. The two sole companies that control Minnesota’s marijuana market will also set up charitable umbrella organizations that will subsidize drug costs for low-income residents.
Those suggestions wouldn’t suffice in lowering costs. Medical marijuana hasn’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a hurdle for U.S. insurers. Approval often depends on clinical studies that measure safety, effectiveness, and side effects — a process that can take years and millions of dollars. To make do, the FDA has approved Marinol, which contains a synthetic version of an ingredient in marijuana.
But critics say such solutions don’t address the real reason for insurers’ failure to reimburse for medical cannabis: The federal government’s reluctance to change marijuana’s controlled substance status. Insurance companies have cited that discrepancy as a deterrent in reimbursing patients for their use of medical cannabis. Marijuana’s removal from the list, if it comes to fruition, would reflect up-to-date information about a scientifically proven natural treatment.
Earlier this year, government officials inched closer to reforming what has been considered oppressive drug policy when the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an addiction research organization, acknowledged research that suggested marijuana could kill tumors. That study came on the heels of research that found marijuana to be a safe alternative to prescription painkillers. Other reports have debunked longtime misconceptions about cannabis. A June study published in the Lancet Psychiatry, for example showed that marijuana use among young people didn’t increase in states that legalized the plant for medical use.
That evidence, however, didn’t prove sufficient in convincing a federal judge in California to remove cannabis from the Schedule 1 list — which also includes heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. During a trial in April involving a pot grower, prosecutors argued marijuana had no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse. That’s why experts and advocates lamented the judge’s decision, saying a different outcome could have set a precedent and add to the push to change national drug laws.
Until then, Minnesotans will have to wait for their state government to make the necessary changes that can lower the price of medical marijuana. But many people remain skeptical that such a shift will happen. Minnesota State Senator Scott Dibble, for example, told reporters that the legislature wouldn’t even light up on restrictions on raw marijuana leaf.
Dr. Kyle Kingsley, chief executive at Minnesota Medical Solutions, shared similar thoughts, reflecting on the potential benefits of lower medical marijuana prices. “It wouldn’t be as much distress in my life or other’s people lives. We could be legal,” he told the Guardian.