'Life-changing prescription': Medical marijuana has desired effect for Woodbury patient
Users of medical marijuana are marking the one-year anniversary of its legalization in Minnesota, even as some criticize its high cost and persistent outlaw stigma.
Cannabis — in pill, liquid and vapor form — became available July 1, 2015, to treat such conditions as cancer-related nausea, seizures, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. By the end of that first week, the Minnesota Department of Health had approved eight patients to begin using medical cannabis.
A year later, at least 1,588 patients, including over 100 children, have been placed on the state eligibility registry.
They include Pete LePage, 43, of Woodbury who buys his medicine from a LeafLine Labs dispensary in Eagan. It’s one of eight cannabis patient centers in the state.
“It’s been life-changing,” said LePage, who was paralyzed after an ATV accident in 1994. He wants people to know that “medical cannabis is helpful. It’s not a dirty, ugly thing. It’s not a hippie thing.”
The crash, in which he dropped into a steep ditch and fell some 20 feet, left him wracked with chronic spasms in his legs, abs, back and bladder. At one point, he was taking five prescription drugs, whose side effects led him to take muscle relaxants, antacids and fiber pills.
“Now, I take none,” he said.
Once a day, he uses a syringe to put some drops of cannabis extract in his mouth. The product, marketed by Leafline as Heather, is a liquid and granular “suspension” mixture.
“There is no recreational value to this medicine,” he said. But it also doesn’t dull his senses or put him to sleep.
Translation: Heather will not get you high. And while it doesn’t completely vanquish the pain, it allows more freedom of movement.
“It’s not adding functions or things to do, it makes everything I want to do easier,” he said. “The spasticity and tone makes me feel stiff and heavy and like I am frozen in concrete. With the cannabis it softens the muscles up and loosens up the joints and muscles. It makes me feel light and it makes moving around much easier and more predictable.”
‘I can still be a parent’
LePage drives to his job as a truck mechanic in Inver Grove Heights. He also hunts, travels and leads his son’s Cub Scout troop.
“I can still be a parent,” he said. “I can still be an employee. I can still move about the Twin Cities safely and I don’t have to buy a bag of weed from some dude’s back stairs.”
Before bed, he uses a vaping pen to dose himself with a LeafLine product called Tangerine, an oil extract high in THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis whose effects can include drowsiness and an increase in appetite.
To obtain medical cannabis in Minnesota, patients must have one of 10 medical conditions certified by a licensed physician, physician’s assistant or specialty nurse. (The 10th, intractable pain, was added last Friday.)
LePage was one of the first in line after last year’s rollout, but his doctor wouldn’t sign off on it.
“None of my traditional doctors would participate and sign me up for this medical cannabis,” he said.
He found an advocate in Advanced Spine & Pain Clinics of Minnesota in Edina.
Owner and physician Matt Thorson said that they’ve received a spike in inquiries since the state added intractable pain as another potentially qualifying condition for patients. Unlike narcotics, medical marijuana poses almost no danger of overdose or addiction.
“We saw a huge uptick in our web hits for patients seeking medical cannabis as an alternative therapy to opioids,” Thorson said. “My whole thought process is that this is another tool in my toolbox to help treat pain. If it’s less lethal than opioids, I’m using it.”
Not a ‘cure-all’
However, it was inevitable that some patients would see little or no benefit to cannabis, he said. Side effects of medical cannabis include dizziness, drowsiness and short-term memory loss.
“I think people (were) waving the banner like, ‘This is going to be a cure-all,” he said of the public debate over legalizing medical cannabis. “That didn’t happen.”
In a recent Minnesota Department of Health survey, 90 percent of medical cannabis patients reported mild to significant improvements. The biggest drawback cited by patients was the expense: 73 percent said that it was unaffordable.
LePage can relate. No insurance companies in Minnesota currently cover medical cannabis treatment. He said his medicines cost him $600 a month. He pays cash.
“I can’t even use a credit card,” he said.
He also pays an annual $200 registration fee to the state.
Banks and credit card issuers have been reluctant to become involved in the medical cannabis industry, said state Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, who helped pass the legalization legislation. Financial institutions are heavily regulated by the federal government, who still classify marijuana as an illegal drug.
“No particular card issuer, business or otherwise, really wants to be the first,” Schoen said.
The Minnesota medical cannabis program is a work in progress, said Schoen, who served as a security consultant for LeafLine Labs temporarily during a leave of absence last year from his job as a Cottage Grove police officer.
Aspects of the program will change as it becomes apparent what works and what doesn’t, Schoen said.
LeafLine grows and processes the medical marijuana at their factory in the Cottage Grove Business Park. They share this niche market with Otsego-based Minnesota Medical Solutions, the only other authorized manufacturer of medical cannabis in the state.
“In the backs of people’s minds marijuana is automatically this scary name,” Schoen said. “Heroin and opiates are killing people every day. But we have found a space where we say, ‘Opiates do good for certain patients.’ That’s really how we have to look at it with cannabis.”
For more information about Minnesota’s medical cannabis program, go online at health.state.mn.us.