The state’s medicinal cannabis industry has grown steadily
Andrew Bachman describes his company’s medicine as “healthcare from the heartland.”
It’s a romantic sentiment from the CEO of a medical company, but Bachman’s LeafLine Labs isn’t your average medicine manufacturer. The Cottage Grove-based company is one of only two producers of cannabis under Minnesota’s medical marijuana program, now a tiny industry that despite the stigma and heavy regulations serves more than 5,300 active patients across the state.
Nearly three years after the state’s marijuana bill passed, Bachman, a Southwest Minneapolis resident, describes the industry as “highly scrutinized, regulated strictly and rolled out thoughtfully,” but one that is poised for future growth.
“We are truly pioneering a novel health care sector on a road that has not been blazed before,” he said.
Bachman is an emergency room doctor by trade and the great-great-grandson of the founder of his family’s business, Bachman’s Floral Gift and Garden Centers, which is not involved with LeafLine Labs. Bachman, a self-described “black sheep” of the family, and his partners joined the industry as one of 12 groups vying to become legal medical marijuana facilities in Minnesota. The company, which operates the legal limit of four locations in St. Paul, St. Cloud, Hibbing and Eagan, now serves more than 1,600 patients each month.
The other producer, the similarly physician-led Minnesota Medical Solutions, operates locations in downtown Minneapolis, Rochester, Bloomington and Moorhead. Both offer products with varying levels of the cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol or THC — the psychoactive element of cannabis — and cannabidiol or CBD — a treatment for seizures and inflammation — in a variety of delivery methods, from syrups and sprays to capsules and oils for vaporization. Soon patients will be able to use topical medicine as well.
The industry, which has 6,600 approved enrollments as of April 13, has gradually grown in the past two years, although the number of active patients rapidly increased last year with the inclusion of intractable pain. Today, more than 60 percent of medical marijuana patients receive treatment for the condition, which the program just accepted last August.
Kyle Kinglsey, CEO of MinnMed and its parent company, Vireo Health, said the inclusion of intractable pain is important to the programs as many people with the condition take opioids and are now able to get off or significantly reduce use with cannabis. Bachman said Minnesota and other states with program that accept the condition are saving lives by giving people an alternative to the prescription painkillers, which, along with illegal drugs like heroin, were involved in more than 500 overdose deaths in 2015 in Minnesota alone, according to the Center for Disease Control.
“When our medicines are killers of patients who entrusted their lives and care to use, we need to first stop doing that and then we can go from there,” he said. “That’s why I’m in medicine.”
Beyond intractable pain, the nine other conditions accepted under the state’s program include cancer, seizures, inflammatory bowel disease and terminal illness. Two of every 10 patients take medical cannabis for muscle spasms. A small portion of patients are also qualified due to glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Tourette syndrome and ALS.
The most recent addition is post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis that will officially be accepted in August. New conditions and delivery methods are regulated by the 11-person Office of Medical Cannabis, a department of the Minnesota Department of Health. Director Michelle Larson said the office includes a research team that reviews new conditions and delivery methods, which companies, patients and other advocates can petition for during a period each June and July. The final call ultimately lies with Commissioner of Health Ed Ehlinger.
Despite the growth of patients due to conditions and delivery methods, the industry isn’t yet profitable. Kingsley and Bachman said their companies have yet to go in the black. However, Kingsley said it’s headed in that direction.
The two said, while profits are possible down the line, they’re currently focused on patient costs. Patients, whose medical cannabis is not covered by insurance, pay about $190–$200 at MinnMed and about $215 at LeafLine per month on average. More than half of patients, who are about 50 years old on average, receive some sort of government assistance, most likely through Social Security Disability, Medicaid or Minnesota Care, which qualifies them for a reduced enrollment fee of $50, down from the regular $200.
One issue that still plagues the medical marijuana industry across the country is the stigma of using a substance that, regardless of how states treat it, remains illegal at the federal level, a problem that affects both patients and manufacturers. Bachman said there are still barriers to selling medicinal marijuana because it’s been unknown, controversial and “mismarketed” to people for decades. The most powerful remedy for that is sharing real-life examples with people across the state, he added.
“This isn’t a political issue. It’s been politicized. But people are very rapidly realizing that, hold on a second, cancer doesn’t care,” he said. “It’s something that is a very human issue.”
There are opportunities for the program on the horizon. Kingsley said there’s a lot of room for the industry to grow as the stigma against the drug fades. Bachman said there is compelling research that medicinal cannabis could help people with autism, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, a combined pool of tens of thousands of Minnesotans who could become patients under the program.
For Bachman, the industry has already been a success given that it has helped thousands of Minnesotans.
“We become part of their lives and part of their stories, and I got to tell you their stories are compelling,” he said. “… At the end of the day, the stories of success and the life-changing testimonials that we’ve heard and push forward, those help significantly to carry the day.”