Jennifer Clark rattled a lunch bag cooler filled with pills on Wednesday night, demonstrating the sheer number of pills she takes daily to deal with the chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia and arthritis.
"I'm less than 40 years old. This is my bag of pills that I take every day. It's kind of ridiculous. Now if I could take half of these and get rid of them and just use medical cannabis, I'd be more than happy to do it, but in this state, because I have intractable pain, I can't," she said.
Clark was one of several patients who implored state health officials at a public meeting to expand the state's medical marijuana law to include people suffering from intractable pain. The forum was the first in a series of statewide public meetings sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Health's Office of Medical Cannabis to gather input on whether intractable pain should be added to the list of qualifying conditions.
Minnesota's medical marijuana law requires the state's health commissionerto determine by Jan. 1 whether patients with intractable pain should be eligible for medical marijuana. Intractable pain is defined as a "pain state in which the cause of the pain cannot be removed or otherwise treated." A panel of medical professionals has been assembled to offer its recommendation to the commission. The department is also seeking public input.
If Commissioner Ed Ehlinger decides intractable pain should be made a qualifying condition, the earliest patients would be able to access medical marijuana would be August 2016.
About 40 people turned out for Wednesday night's meeting at the Rochester Public Library. The vast majority of those in attendance argued the medical marijuana program needs to be expanded to help those struggling daily with pain. Among them was Pamela Haase, a retired clinical pharmacist. She said the stories of people who have used medical marijuana and found relief from their debilitating pain should be enough to convince state officials to broaden the program.
"Chronic pain is brutal and it is unrelenting, and those are the two words that describe it. I think if you talk to anybody with this condition, there just isn't anything they can do about it — until hopefully now," Haase said.
Medical marijuana became legal in Minnesota on July 1. The law, which is one of the strictest in the nation, only allows medical cannabis to be used in pill, liquid or oil form. Patients must have one of nine qualifying conditions, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis or a terminal illness, to be eligible. Enrollment in the program has been slow. As of Aug. 20, 361 patients statewide have been approved to use medical cannabis and 370 health care practitioners are certified to register patients. Rochester is home to one of three medical marijuana dispensaries in the state.
A major concern for those in the audience was the cost of the program and the medication. Individuals must pay a $200 annual registration fee for the state program, although it is less for low-income individuals. Patients then have to pay for the medication, which can cost hundreds of dollars a month and is not covered by insurance. Kelly Berning said the high cost concerns her. She has mixed connective tissue disease and struggles with intense pain. The Stewartville resident is on 16 different medications for pain management and is unable to work.
"It's destroying the inside of my body, my liver is in danger, my kidneys are in danger and it's all because I have to take these other medications, and if I don't, my pain level is 10 or above all the time," Berning said.
One audience member questioned whether medical professionals agree that cannabis is a helpful treatment and voiced concerns about individuals driving while under the influence of medical marijuana. Michelle Larson, who oversees the state's Office of Medical Cannabis, pointed to the nearly 400 health care practitioners who are participating in the program as evidence that some medical professionals do see value in cannabis. She also noted that under state law it is illegal for an individual to drive while under the influence of medical marijuana.
Kathleen Hokanson drove from Minneapolis to share her story about intractable pain. The business owner said she fell off a 30-plus foot cliff and broke bones throughout her body. After years of using powerful prescription painkillers that had adverse effects, she started using marijuana to manage her pain. As part of her work, she said she has traveled across the country and seen firsthand how medical marijuana has helped people, like her, with intractable pain.
"People ask me from all over the country, 'Will you ever think about moving to another state to get your pain relief?' And I just say, 'I shouldn't have to.'"
Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, attended the meeting and said in an interview afterwards that he was deeply moved by the stories he heard. He said he would be open to expanding the law so that people with other painful medical conditions could access cannabis.
"These are people that were in pain, they were sick," Senjem said. "It was obvious that some of these people were actually users and why do you have to go to the street and buy it illegally when we could probably make it legal for their affliction and give them a decent life?"