ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Patrick McClellan's first batch of medical marijuana, via vaporizer, worked like a charm, curbing the pain and muscle spasms that come with his muscular dystrophy and supplanting a combination of prescription medications that doctors say could kill him.
But the first and second rounds of cannabis oil missed the mark for treating 18-year-old Scott Rapp's seizures. With the high costs and the hoops the Rapp family had to jump through just to get signed up, mother Shelly Rapp said they're eyeing a move back to California, where the medicine was cheaper and worked better.
The story of Minnesota's first month of medical marijuana is one of triumphs, disappointments and everything in between — a trial-and-error process that manufacturers expected and many patients hoped to avoid. For some in both camps, it's breaking the bank.
Officials from the two companies cultivating and selling the cannabis pills and oils said they cautioned patients from the start: It's a matter of finding the right dosage and strain to nail down an effective treatment. The state hopes to build off that learning curve by tracking patient results, filling a void of research for which cannabis-based medications work best for different ailments.
Minnesota Medical Solutions sent the first customers home with just a week's supply —not the monthly maximum allowed by law — as an initial trial.
"We're very clear that cannabis is not a cure-all," CEO Dr. Kyle Kingsley said. "We tell people not to lose hope if it doesn't work right away."
Even after three misfires, Jonathan Holmgren is optimistic he'll find something to treat his Crohn's disease and muscle spasms. A chemical additive in a vaporizer burned his gums the first time, as did a liquid from a second try. Some pills from a third visit provided just a sliver of relief — nothing compared to immediate effect from the buds his caretakers buy for him on the black market.
The 33-year-old Spring Lake Park resident said he hasn't given up and is encouraged by Minnesota Medical Solutions' willingness to keep trying, too — they're working to concoct a new mix of compounds he thinks may do the trick, he said.
"I know what it's like to have to do the trial and error with medicine," Holmgren said. "I'm kind of used to it. It's part of the routine."
Kinglsey said they've seen some of most positive results among patients suffering seizure disorders. Manny Munson-Regala, chief executive at LeafLine Labs, said patients have given great feedback from their seizure and cancer medications.
Sarah Wellington's relief came in the form of a vaporizer pen and was immediate. Normally coping with intense muscle spasms that grip her legs as part of multiple sclerosis, she's more active with her family than anytime she can remember.
"I planted flowers for the first time in two summers. It's amazing," she said.
But at nearly $500 per month, Wellington can't afford to replace her other medications and use the vaporizer as needed, only sparingly.
The price was the final straw for Rapp. She paid nearly $500 out-of-pocket for two bottles of oil that cut down on some of her son's seizures, but also made him restless and agitated. Compared to the oil in California — which she said worked better at a fraction of the price — their first-month experience has been disappointing.
The cost is an issue for McClellan, too, but one he's stomaching for now. His vaporizer worked right away, calming muscle spasms as they begin
After years fighting for Minnesota's new law and researching medical marijuana, McClellan understood it might not be the miracle cure trumpeted by some advocates.
"It's no different than any other medication," he said. "It will be a godsend for others and do nothing for others."