By Tony C. Dreibus
Low patient numbers, limited consumption options and hesitant doctors rank as some of the biggest challenges facing Minnesota’s medical marijuana industry, which is slated to launch Wednesday when the first two dispensaries in the state open.
As of June 25, just 65 patients had been authorized to purchase medical marijuana, according to the Minnesota Office of Medical Cannabis. That’s much smaller than other states where dispensaries have opened recently.
Delaware, for instance, had about 344 registered patients when its lone dispensary opened last week, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
Still, the two companies at the forefront of Minnesota’s medical cannabis industry say patient numbers are in line with their predictions and that the rollout has gone relatively smoothly.
“There are always hiccups and speed bumps, but it’s going better than we expected,” said Kyle Kingsley, the CEO of Minnesota Medical Solutions (MinnMed), which along with Leafline Labs received a license to cultivate, process and sell medical cannabis in the state. “I’d like patients to have additional access, but this is what our team expected. We’re going to see hundreds of patients in July and it’ll keep expanding from there.”
Executives at MinnMed initially estimated that between 600 and 1,000 patients would be registered for MMJ cards by the end of the year, so the current numbers are not as big a surprise as some may think, he said.
MinnMed is slated to open its dispensary in Minneapolis on Wednesday and Leafline Labs plans to open one in Eagan. The companies said they will sell oils for vaporization, tinctures, syrups and sub-lingual sprays.
Six more dispensaries, split between the companies, will launch in the next few months. The companies combined raised more than $30 million ahead of Wednesday’s kick-off.
Sales could be relatively low during the first year of the program.
The list of qualifying conditions is narrow – limited to just nine conditions including cancer, glaucoma and HIV/AIDS, among others. That means the market base for MMJ will likely be small unless the state adds more ailments.
One key ailment missing from the list is intractable pain, which the health department is considering adding by Jan. 1. If it moves forward with expanding the medical conditions list, the patient registry could grow by thousands – but it’s no guarantee.
Finding a physician willing to certify a patient for cannabis may also be easier said than done. While 70% of patients with qualifying conditions said they’d register for the program, only 9% of doctors said they would recommend medical cannabis, according to a survey by the Minnesota Medical Association.
Additionally, no smokeable forms of cannabis are allowed, which will make Minnesota’s industry much different than other existing MMJ states. Patients are only able to purchase infused pills or extracts.
Also of concern is that only eight dispensaries will be allowed in the state, said Robert Capecchi, the deputy direct of state policies for Marijuana Policy Project. That limits access to medical cannabis and might not be enough to serve all patients once the program matures and grows.
Still, the Minnesota Department of Health deserves recognition for its expediency in getting the program up and running considering it took just over a year from the time the governor signed it into law to rollout, Capecchi said. Delaware, by contrast, took more than four years to launch its medical cannabis program.
“Many areas of this law can be improved upon, but as far as this program getting off the ground, we couldn’t be happier that the DOH initiated it so expeditiously and implemented it to the letter,” Capecchi said.
Because the industry in the state is so new, the low patient numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise, Leafline Labs co-founder and medical director Andrew Bachman said. The number of patients will grow along with the number doctors willing to recommend medical marijuana as people learn more about the benefits of cannabis.
While some people are concerned about the tight regulations, they’re necessary to gain public trust, he said. In fact, other states would be wise to follow in Minnesota’s footsteps as a way to show people that a medical marijuana industry can be run responsibly.
“This is the type of program many other states are looking to emulate going forward,” Bachman said. “There’s certainly a lot of responsibility on us to show we can do it well and responsibly so we can expand the industry.”
Tony C. Dreibus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org