Patients, families may pay up to $500 a month for marijuana

Medical marijuana oil
In this Feb. 7, 2014 file photo, Aileen Burger loads an oral syringe with cannabis-infused oil used to treat her 4-year-old daughter Elizabeth, who suffers from severe epilepsy, at her home in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Brennan Linsley / AP file

Minnesota patients seeking medical marijuana come July 1 can expect monthly bills of $100 to $500 for their treatment, according to estimates from the state's manufacturers.

With no hope of insurance covering even a fraction of those bills, the potentially high costs will leave some patients and their children with the painful choice of cutting expenses elsewhere or forgoing a chance at relief.

"At the upper end, it would be impossible. I don't have $500 left over at the end of the month," said Sarah Wellington, a St. Paul middle school teacher hoping to treat her multiple sclerosis with medical marijuana. "That's over half my mortgage."

Officials from the state's two medical marijuana manufacturers stress that costs will vary greatly based on the patient, his or her condition and the dosage required to treat it. And both Minnesota Medical Solutions (MinnMed) and LeafLine Labs have vowed to set up special pricing structures to cut costs for those with lower incomes.

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MinnMed CEO Kyle Kingsley said its line of medicine will cost $100 to $500 a month. LeafLine co-founder Gary Starr said his company's products will likely run between $250 and $500 a month. State law also requires patients to pay a $200 annual registration fee -- reduced to $50 for residents on public programs.

Those costs are a byproduct of the law passed last session giving Minnesota one of the strictest programs among the 23 states that allow medical marijuana.

In Minnesota, marijuana can't be smoked or sold in plant form, requiring expensive equipment to extract the plants' active ingredients and convert them into pills, oils or vapors. Stringent security measures and transportation from production facilities to eight dispensary sites also add to producers' costs.

Minnesota's law makes stacking up prices against other states an apples-to-oranges comparison, said Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates legalizing marijuana. But allowing the plant form or more manufacturing sites might have helped keep costs down, he said.

Manufacturers are mapping out their own programs to bring prices down.

MinnMed is planning a sliding price scale for its products based on income. In its application to the state, the Otsego-based manufacturer said it will cut prices by 60 percent for Minnesota families below the federal poverty level -- about $24,000 for a family of four. Households and individuals who make up to double the federal poverty income level would get 30 percent off.

The company also will donate a share of profits to its own nonprofit that will help patients with payments.

LeafLine is still considering how it will offer lower prices to lower-income residents, Starr said Tuesday.

Money is tight for Heather Kainz's family in Duluth, but MinnMed's cost assistance is likely out of reach to help buy medicine to treat her 3-year-old son Parker's neurological disorder.

"My husband, on paper, makes a good income. When it comes down to all our expenses, there's not a whole lot left over," Kainz said.

Wellington, a member of the state's task force overseeing rollout of the medical cannabis program, said she's facing a similar challenge. And even if her medication comes in at the lower end of estimates, $100 a month would eat away at her gas and energy budget.

Still, Wellington said she'd try it -- but not without reservations.

"It makes me kind of skeptical to lay out that kind of money ... to try a product that I've never tried," she said.