MN medical marijuana sites grow; cost, access concerns remain

Medical cannabis
A sampling of products offered by Minnesota Medical Solutions.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

A year and a half after Bloomington resisted opening a medical marijuana dispensary for fear it would attract crime, the southwest suburb is warming to the idea.

This summer it will become the site of Minnesota's next medical marijuana operation. It will be run by Minnesota Medical Solutions, which has opened sites in Minneapolis and Rochester and expects to open in Moorhead and Bloomington by July 1. The company's rival, LeafLine Labs, opened its first dispensary in Eagan last summer and plans sites in St. Cloud, Hibbing and St. Paul by its July contractual deadline.

Bloomington had been one of several western suburbs along with the city of Duluth to put moratoriums in place to stop dispensaries from opening. But the mayor and Bloomington City Council changed course recently, unanimously voting to allow Minnesota Medical Solutions to open a clinic off of Minnesota Highway 100 and Interstate 494.

Minnesota's strict medical cannabis law bans clinics from selling plant-based marijuana, and the medication comes in pill or oil form, which is a lot more controlled than in states such as Colorado or Washington that have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use, said Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead.

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"This takes on the likings of a pharmacy," Winstead told Minnesota Medical Solutions officials earlier this week. "I would venture to say that the pharmacies in our community have a product that would be as susceptible to break in or theft or things than what's being distributed and dispensed from your facility."

While Minnesota is expected to have eight clinics open this summer, observers continue to wonder if the patient demand is there.

The state had predicted about 5,000 patients might enroll in the program by the 2017 fiscal year. So far, 1,300 patients have been approved. Those patients live an average of 46 miles from the closest clinic, according Minnesota Health Department data.

Beyond distance, cost is also a factor.

Patrick McClellan was one of the first people to go to the downtown Minneapolis clinic when it opened last July. So far, he can only afford to spend $250 a month on medical cannabis. With constant muscle spasms, the Bloomington 50-year-old says that's not enough for the medical marijuana he's prescribed.

"We can't afford to solely use this medication," he said. "For $250 a month for people that are on social security, disability and are not working, it's just impossible for most people to afford, much less these costs of $500, $600 a month or even $1,000 a month."

The biggest reason behind the low demand isn't the price, it's the limited list of qualifying conditions, said Minnesota Medical Solutions CEO Dr. Kyle Kingsley.

The state program began only registering patients with nine conditions including seizures, muscle spasms and Crohn's disease. "Intractable pain" was later added and will go into effect this August.

"The biggest one is intractable pain because that's going to pull a lot of folks into the fold that right now are relying on things like opiates and they're a threat to your life with the addiction, the overdose risk," Kingsley said. "Cannabis just doesn't have those risks."

Correction (May 6, 2016): This story has been updated to clarify how fast patients are expected to enroll in Minnesota's medical marijuana program.