Pot for Pain? Not in Minnesota.

courtesy of Dominik Martin via unsplash

The United States is in the middle of its deadliest drug crisis ever — an opioid epidemic that claimed 52,000 lives in 2015 alone.

To fight this epidemic, and decrease people’s dependence on opioid painkillers, it’s imperative we find alternative ways to help people manage their pain. Many believe the answer is medical marijuana.

Luckily Minnesota, the state where I live, agrees. Medical marijuana is legal here. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accessible.

The word on the street is that Minnesota’s medical marijuana program for people with severe illnesses like cancer, ALS or Multiple Sclerosis is clunky but functional. However, the part for people like me who have intractable/chronic pain is a total nightmare to navigate.

I decided to do some investigating to see if that was true.

Step one: find a doctor

Sadly, right out the gate I ran into a roadblock.

You would assume a person should go to their doctor to get access to medical marijuana, (which I’m going to refer to as “MM” in this post since I can never spell marijuana correctly).

Unfortunately though, most doctors in Minnesota (even pain doctors) are not approved to certify anyone to take it because their health care system employers prohibit them from doing so. (Doctors who treat people with the severe illnesses mentioned above are a different story.)

So, how exactly does a person go about finding a doctor who will certify them? Certainly there must be a list somewhere of those rogue MM-friendly doctors, right?

Wrong. The state of Minnesota presumably has a list, but it won’t give that list to the public. Apparently people in pain are supposed to just go around to clinics like a little Oliver Twist (“Please sir, may I have a pot doctor?”) and make inquiries until someone takes pity on them and gives them a name.

Thankfully I lucked into a lead early. I waited until my annual check in with my pain clinic and asked for info. However, rather than engaging in a dialogue with me about it, my doctor just wordlessly slid a list of 23 statewide clinics covertly across the table.

One name on the list had an asterisk by it. This was apparently “the one.”

Nothing more was discussed — I got the sense it was something my doctor wasn’t allowed to discuss. We just kind of nodded to each other and that was that. The whole thing was kind of like Fight Club, but, you know, less cool.

Step two: set up an appointment

I called “the one,” (which I’m going to call the “MM clinic”) and asked the receptionist if they did indeed prescribe MM. (Because maybe the asterisk meant something else? Maybe this was Fight Club.)

Immediately the receptionist at the MM clinic behaved as if I’d just asked if she enjoys playing Justin Bieber during private sexytime, stage whispering to me, “Yes, that’s true.”

“Er…okay,” I answered in a normal voice. Then I asked if I could set up an appointment and was told I needed to first have my pain clinic fax over my medical records for the last six months.

So, I called my pain clinic, but was immediately transferred to a cranky lady in the medical records department who told me the MM clinic needed to request my records. I got cranky right back and explained the MM clinic just told me the exact opposite thing. After some arguing, she finally directed me to an online medical records request form.

I found the form, printed it, filled it out, stuck it in an envelope, and put it in the mail. (Hooray for technological advances! And sarcasm!). The form said it might take 7–10 days to be processed.

After 21 days I finally got a call from the MM clinic. Sadly it turns out they got the wrong records. (Curse you, cranky records lady! You won this round!) In spite of the mix up though, the woman on the phone agreed to tell me about their program anyway.

Apparently the MM clinic cannot prescribe MM, only the state can do that. What the clinic does is certify you with the state, so someone else can prescribe it for you. In order to get certified, I would need to first fill out a two page Patient Email and Acknowledgement Form. Then I should bring that form to the MM clinic where I would then have a 90 minute appointment.

Sounds easy enough.

Not so fast though. Because that appointment would be regarding my certification for the MM program, my insurance wouldn’t cover ANY of it, so it would cost me $844.

Step three: um…backpedal

At that point, I decide I’m OUT. (My kid needs braces and my house, a new roof.) However, since I was already in this deep, I asked the woman to explain how the rest of the process goes and then did some further research on my own.

  • Apparently, once I’d had the $844 appointment and the MM doctor said I was good to go, they would have told the state I was certified to register for the MM program. Then I would have needed to wait for a certification email from the state.
  • Once I got that email, I would have needed to fill out the online registration form and pay the certification fee of $200. (This fee must be renewed every year.) After that, my account would need to be approved.
  • Once my account was approved, I would have needed to complete and submit a Patient Self-Evaluation Form to the state. (Apparently you need to submit a new form every time you request medical cannabis.)
  • After THAT I would have been able to visit the dispensary/Cannabis Patient Center. According to the peeps I know who’ve visited one, nothing at the dispensary is covered by insurance. In fact, you can’t even take the cost of MM as a medical expense on your federal taxes because under federal law, medical cannabis is not legal. Also, if you are in too much pain to pick up your MM (a likely proposition) you need to pay $15 to cover the costs of a background check of the person who is picking it up for you.
  • Once I got my MM, I would have needed to return to the MM clinic in four weeks for another appointment. My insurance wouldn’t have paid for that one either, so this second visit would have cost me $450 (cause it’s shorter.)
  • After THAT I would need to return to the MM clinic in six months time for another $450 appointment and would need to keep doing so every year thereafter in order to stay certified in the program.

Step four: ponder this dumpster fire of a mess

Basically, my start-up costs for the medical marijuana program in Minnesota would have been $1,944. That’s just to play the game. Purchasing any actual marijuana would be extra.

Imagine going through all of those steps when you are in horrible pain and can’t even think straight, and your ability to earn a living has likely been compromised (i.e. you don’t have $1,944 to do anything.)

It’s impractical and cruel.

Also, to play devil’s advocate, why would any person in pain jump through all of those hoops…

  • Overcome stigma while they’re doing their homework,
  • Search blindly for someone to certify them,
  • Have awkward conversations with doctors who’ve been muzzled by their employers,
  • Fight against a healthcare system that has once again has put profits before people,

…when they could just call a friend, who calls a friend, who gets them some weed off the street?

I get it, good people were trying to do a good thing when they created this program. But it’s no surprise it’s struggling.

In attempting to create a program that keeps everyone happy, Minnesota has effectively created a trap-ridden gauntlet for its sickest citizens to navigate. Sadly, their success in doing so will be contingent upon their privilege, not their pain.

Interested in this topic? Please follow me on Medium to read more posts about chronic pain and my new book, Chronic Pain Recovery: A Practical Guide to Putting Your Life Back Together After Everything Has Fallen Apart, now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Google Play and Kobo.