ST. PAUL -- Having cancer is a good enough reason to legally take marijuana in Minnesota. Same with epilepsy or AIDS.
But pain so severe it can drive a person to suicide? No way.
That’s the No. 1 problem with the state’s new medical marijuana law, according to testimony at a hearing Friday at the state Capitol.
“Please add intractable pain to the list,” said Jennessa Lea of St. Paul, a single mom who suffers from a body-deterioration condition.
She was one of 12 people who addressed the Task Force on Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research. The group met to hear public feedback about the medical marijuana law, which went into effect July 1.
Since then marijuana pills and extracts have been made by two companies - LeafLine Labs of Cottage Grove and Minnesota Medical Solutions of Minneapolis. The marijuana is being sold in dispensaries in Minneapolis, Eagan and Rochester.
The state Department of Health website shows that 525 patients have been approved to buy the marijuana, and 406 doctors have been approved to certify patients.
The families testifying were generally grateful for the new form of medicine.
Kari Olavson of Coon Rapids brought in her 4-year-old son, Jacob. “He suffers from chronic seizures,” said Olavson, “but cannabis knocked it on its butt.
“He rarely smiled before, but now he does all the time,” said Olavson.
Kim Kelsey of Excelsior has a 24-year-old son, Aleck, who suffers from seizures - which have eased greatly since he has taken the marijuana.
“He has had 86 remarkable days,” said Kelsey. “He is alert, present and engaged, or as Aleck would say, ‘Friggin’ awesome.’
“This is our miracle,” said Kelsey.
Lea told the panel that she has used painkillers for years for relief of pain related to muscle spasms. She has a condition that causes deterioration of collagen, a substance that literally holds the human body together.
She said that when pain is extremely severe and immune to painkillers, sufferers can contemplate suicide. She said that in the past she has turned to the only drugs that helped - illegal opiates.
It could happen again, she said, because the cost of the medical marijuana was “outrageous.” “I am being pushed to the black market,” she said.
Task force co-chair Rep. Pat Garafolo, R-Farmington, was appalled.
“I don’t understand why we would want you to take opiates,” he said. “We are making criminals out of people who want medicine to help them.”
He said the decision to give marijuana for relief of extreme pain should be an easy one. “This is a 30-second decision, when you see someone in horrible, horrible pain.”
Garafolo said many federal and state restrictions of marijuana were unnecessary. “Unless you are living in a cave,” said Garafolo, “you know these restrictions drive people to the black market and drive up costs.”
In other testimony, patients complained that the cost of medical marijuana is too high.
Darrell Paulsen of Maplewood uses a wheelchair because of his muscle spasms. He has smoked marijuana illegally for years, he said, to ease his pain. “But it’s hard to hold my pipe, with my spasticity,” said Paulsen.
He said that he likes the effect of the new marijuana pills but that a one-month supply would cost him about $400.
The high cost is a tough problem to fix, according to Laura Bultman, chief medical officer of Minnesota Medical Solutions.
She said that the doses and costs vary “exponentially.”
“One patient will be a 30-pound child, and the next a 350-pound adult,” she said. And their conditions will vary - some responsive to small amounts of marijuana, some not.
Bultman said the average monthly cost per patient ranged from $200 to $500.
Since July 1, she said, some adverse effects have been reported, such as over-sedation or interactions with other medications. But none, she said, required medical attention.
The effects of the medicine sometimes are confused with the effects of the disease, said LeafLine CEO Manny Munson-Regala.
“Our patients are really, really sick,” he said. Some terminal illnesses are included on the list of conditions warranting medical marijuana. In fact, two patients have died from their conditions since July 1, said Munson-Regala.
There have been no adverse reactions attributable to the drug, he said. He did, however, remember one complaint, which he shared with the Task Force: “This stuff tastes like monkey-ass.”
Regardless of the taste, the new medicine got a ringing endorsement from Elly Grzesiak of Golden Valley.
She testified about her daughter, Eleanor, 6, who stood quietly by her side. When the girl was younger, said Grzesiak, “The seizures could not be stopped. She would spend days bashing her head on the floor and screaming.”
Now, thanks to the marijuana, the girl is calm and can sometimes sleep through the night.
“That’s what this little plant can do in our state,” said Grzesiak.