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Slow rollout, few dispensaries mean long drives for some to get medical marijuana

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ST. PAUL, Minnesota — It's a 400-mile, seven-hour, $100 or more journey from Maria Botker's home in tiny Clinton to the nearest clinic where she can buy medical marijuana — the only drug that does the trick for her daughter's rare and aggressive seizure disorder.

In addition to the medicine's high cost, the short list of qualifying conditions and the difficulty in getting a doctor's approval to sign up, there's one more thing making the program difficult for Minnesota patients. Some have to come an awfully long way to get it, with only two of eight dispensaries opening since the July 1 launch.

The law doesn't require all eight to be open until July 2016. A third location is slated to open Thursday in Rochester. A Bemidji clinic for the northeast corner of the state likely won't be running until sometime next year.

And even after all eight facilities open, Botker and others from southwestern Minnesota will still face five-hour trips or longer.

"The southwest part of the state is completely neglected," she said. "I fear that there's patients out there that could qualify but can't make the trip. Those are huge burdens on people with chronic illnesses."

Shaving two hours off their monthly trip for medicine when a Moorhead clinic opens later this summer sounds like "a treat," Botker said. But after moving to Colorado to get her daughter, Greta, the medicine she needs, then back to Minnesota to see through a new law that disappointed many advocates, Botker doesn't mince words about the long list of improvements needed to Minnesota's medical marijuana program.

Adding more dispensaries is at or near the top of the wish list.

"There's a long way to go until this system is perfect, or better," Botker said.

Minnesota's medical marijuana law passed in the waning days of its 2014 legislative session after some last-minute wrangling to get skeptical law enforcement agencies on board. Sen. Scott Dibble called the tight restrictions, including the limited number of dispensaries, a response to law enforcement's "artificial concerns."

After giving the state some time to digest its new medical marijuana program, Dibble said he'll look to revive that debate in the name of adding more distribution centers.

"I'm very interested in lowering the barriers to people who are sick and are in need," the Minneapolis Democrat said.

Until then, parents like Dawn Baker will have to spend hours in the car.

Baker and her fiancé are eyeing medical marijuana as a last recourse to treat her 4-year-old son Brayden's epilepsy before brain surgery, but she estimates the six-hour drive to the nearest clinic in Minneapolis will cost at least $100.

Add in childcare for Brayden and their four other kids or a night at a hotel, and it's likely $250 or more — all before paying for the medicine itself, a bill that could easily surpass $1,000 a month that insurance won't cover.

"We have no idea how we're going to come up with it," Baker said.

Minnesota's two medical marijuana manufacturers have little role in expanding clinic access as they focus on growing and cultivating the medicine and opening the eight locations the state allows. For the time being, parents are making the drive, Minnesota Medical Solutions CEO Kyle Kingsley said.

The travel expense is a pittance compared to the $1,400 Botker pays each month for Greta's seizure medication. Still, Botker looks on the bright side: Compared to the split life their family endured when she and Greta lived in Colorado, it's worth the cost, she said.

"Is it frustrating getting over the growing pains? A little bit," she said. "But ultimately, I'm so thankful that we're getting it here in Minnesota."

PHOTO: ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, JULY 20 - FILE - In this June 17, 2015 file photo, Dr. Andrew Bachman holds the pill form of medical marijuana during a tour of LeafLine Labs, a medical marijuana production facility, in Cottage Grove, Minn. Minnesota’s expansive breadth - and the strict law legislators crafted  - has pit some greater Minnesota patients with hundreds of miles of driving to buy medical marijuana which is dispensed in pill, oil and vapor forms.  (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, JULY 20 - FILE - In this June 17, 2015 file photo, Dr. Andrew Bachman holds the pill form of medical marijuana during a tour of LeafLine Labs, a medical marijuana production facility, in Cottage Grove, Minn. Minnesota’s expansive breadth - and the strict law legislators crafted - has pit some greater Minnesota patients with hundreds of miles of driving to buy medical marijuana which is dispensed in pill, oil and vapor forms. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

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PHOTO: ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, JULY 20 - FILE - In this June 17, 2015 file photo, Dr. Andrew Bachman explains the various ways medical marijuana will be dispensed during a tour of LeafLine Labs, a medical marijuana production facility, in Cottage Grove, Minn.  Minnesota’s expansive breadth - and the strict law legislators crafted - has pit some greater Minnesota patients with hundreds of miles of driving to buy medical marijuana which is dispensed in pill, oil and vapor forms. (AP Photo/Jim Mone,File)
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