Minnesota medical marijuana patients are at the mercy of a task force that never meets

Minnesota Rep. Heather Edelson (D-Edina) says Minnesotans can't afford their medical marijuana prescriptions, and that needs to change.

Minnesota Rep. Heather Edelson (D-Edina) says Minnesotans can't afford their medical marijuana prescriptions, and that needs to change. Minnesota Legislature

Legalized recreational marijuana may have been barred from receiving a full vote in the Minnesota Senate, but 15,000 people in the state are still using the medical variety. Research shows it does wonders for pain control, and it's also showing promise in managing nausea and PTSD.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that in Minnesota, you have to pay through the nose to get it. The average monthly cost last year was $150. But some people end up shelling out several hundred a month, and it costs a couple hundred dollars just to get certified to visit a dispensary.

Some patients, says state Rep. Heather Edelson (D-Edina), take partial doses because they can’t afford the full freight. Others turn to the illicit market, where marijuana's cheaper and and more readily available. According to the Pioneer Press, 3,400 new patients dropped out of the program last year alone. For good reason. 

“When they passed this law in 2014, it was one of the most restrictive in the country,” Edelson says. It can only be used to treat 13 severe conditions, and Minnesota insurance companies don’t cover it. Only two manufacturers managed to get on the books, and they were so strictly taxed they weren’t allowed to deduct business expenses. Minnesota Medical Solutions CEO Jay Westwater calculated his combined federal and state tax rate at “about 70 percent.”

So the companies lost millions, the price of cannabis remains high, and patients bore the brunt of an ill-conceived program. 

One group is supposed to be keeping an eye on these problems. The Minnesota medical cannabis task force was formed shortly after medical marijuana became legal. Its task was to make sure this new resource is accessible to those who need it -- mostly by holding hearings and learning about what patients are going through.

That group, however, hasn’t met in two years.

The last time the task force sat down was in January 2017. Sen. Scott Dibble (D-Minneapolis) is a member. He didn’t respond to interview requests, but he didn’t mince words with the Press about how well it was going.

“It’s a coffee club… it has no real purpose,” he said. Both supporters and opponents of medical marijuana were in the group, which meant scant meetings often got derailed by debates about the group’s scope and purpose. Some members stopped showing up. Some simply left the group entirely.

Other terms used by current and former members to describe it: “A bunch of people that sit around a microphone and talk about cannabis,” and a “misuse of my time.” (These remarks were from addiction doctor Charles Reznikoff and Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association Director Dennis Flaherty, respectively.) Dibble said he’d like to see the group strengthened and refocused, but he’d just as well see it disbanded altogether.

Edelson thinks there still needs to be a task force to address the state’s costly and unwieldly system. Someone, she says, should be actually speaking with patients and helping bring down prices and barriers.

She introduced a bill this session to require the task force to meet annually and work on those issues. Unfortunately, it came a little too late and couldn’t get a hearing. She’s committed to attacking this again next year.