New York’s medical marijuana program is due to go online by January, but there are still a number of questions with how it will all work. In part of the four-part series "The Growing Economy," Capital Tonight's Nick Reisman traveled to Minnesota to understand how that state’s medical marijuana program works for both doctors and patients.
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- Patrick McClellan was running out of hope.
"I needed an option, other than something that could potentially kill me, to try and fight these massive attacks and that's how I discovered cannabis," he said.
McClellan became one of the first patients in Minnesota to take advantage of the state's new, strictly regulated medical marijuana program. The New York program is one that's expected to be strictly overseen by state officials in Albany and a governor who can end the medical marijuana program at anytime. And it’s based on the Minnesota system. New York, like Minnesota, is limiting the number of illnesses that qualify for a medical marijuana prescription.
"Nothing is a magic bullet. There are not a lot of medicines that cure anything. What we're looking for is an increase in quality of life and an exceptionally good safety profile," said Laura Bultman, the chief medical officer of Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of just two medical marijuana providers in the state.
The company is expanding to New York with plans to build a manufacturing facility in Fulton County. Bultman has researched the effects of medically prescribed cannabis -- making her a pioneer in a relatively little understood field.
“There's a lot of new medicines on the market and it's natural to be skeptical of anything that doesn't have years of research,” she said.
There’s no typical medical marijuana patient, so prescriptions vary depending on the illness and the symptoms that are being treated. THC is the ingredient most commonly associated with marijuana. It's the chemical that can make users hungry, high and even paranoid. But in many medical marijuana prescriptions, the more important ingredient is the chemical CBD -- a more subtle pain reliever that can address nerve pain and muscle spasms, but does not have the same effects as THC. The drug can be ingested through ordinary looking pills or in liquid form through a dropper.
Bultman says the research has been difficult to weigh for health care practitioners and doctors in part because some studies have focused on smoking the drug, which isn't allowed in New York or Minnesota. At the same time, some in burgeoning fields have pinned their hopes to marijuana as a wonder drug. Neither is necessarily the case.
“When there's extremes like that, it's always somewhere in the middle. I think that research that has taken place years ago doesn't really apply to the medical model that we're using,” Bultman said. “Some of the cursory research early on was simply observing folks some of who smoked recreational weed. That just doesn't apply in this case. I think it's hard to translate that kind of evidence or study to what we do in modern medical cannabis.”
And then there's the cost -- patients say it's not prohibitive, but a prescription isn't cheap in Minnesota since patients have been slow to sign up in order to qualify.
“That is a big issue. We are currently paying $66 for one pre-loaded vaporizer pen,” said McClellan. “I believe a lot of the reason for the high cost and one of the reasons why a lot of patients can't afford this is strictly because there are not enough patients in the system.”
State officials in Minnesota overseeing the program say that's because some health care providers who could qualify patients for the program haven't been doing so.
"There are health care providers who just not certifying patients and because it's a volunteer program we don't require that they have to. So, there has been some bottleneck as patients try to find a health care provider that would certify their condition for them to be a patient," said Michelle Larson, the director of the Office of Medical Cannabis.
And for now, that means the number of patients singing up to be qualified in the program is falling below initial estimates.
“We predicted I think about 5,000 patients the first year. It will probably be a little bit less than that,” Larson said. “It's been a slow start as health care practitioners learn and understand the program and as patients try to work through their health care system to try and get certified.”
Larson said the hesitation from some providers to write medical marijuana prescriptions is because some remained concerned about getting involved in the industry at all. And because it's outlawed federally, insurance can't be used to pay for a prescription.
"There's a lot of discomfort for partners that we may need to help with the program. Philosophically, medical cannabis has not been in their pharmacopeia and medical training for years," Larson said.
With more than 12 months experience in the program, parents and patients say it's best to do your homework in New York.
Minnesota resident Beth Huntley's 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Harlow, is being treated with medicine made from marijuana in order to stem the symptoms from the rare neurological disease she has. Almost immediately, the results were apparent.
“We gave her first dose on July 1 when the medicine was available, and two hours later she was vocalizing more than she ever normally does,” Huntley said. “My husband and I were laying there thinking this is too soon, let's not get too excited.”
The family is beginning to see the results of their daughter’s treatment.
"The seizures are just horrific. Being a parent, you'll do anything for your child and it's been a long journey. It's been a year and a half since we started our journey at the Capitol passing the bill and then waiting for this medicine to be available. It's meant the world to us to see our daughter -- she's literally coming to life.” Huntley said. "To have your daughter stuck in her brain and herself and then to all of a sudden emerge because of this medicine that's a healing plant you know that has very few side effects is just the most incredible experience, and to have fought for something for so hard and then be lucky enough to see results is truly a miracle."