Jennifer Brooks
See more of the story

The state of Minnesota is about to give Sam Poquette back two hours of his day.

For months, Poquette has been making the long round trip from his home in New Ulm to a clinic in Bloomington to fill his cannabis prescription.

This summer, medical cannabis is coming to him.

Big changes are coming to Minnesota, home to the most restrictive medical marijuana program in the nation.

The number of clinics is doubling, from eight to 16. One of those dispensaries is set to open in Mankato, just down the road from Poquette. Next year, the program will open to chronic pain patients for the first time. Since 20% of Americans live with chronic pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that could open the program to a million Minnesotans, and possibly push prices lower for all of them.

For Poquette, one of 18,000 Minnesotans actively enrolled in the program right now, it could mean easier, cheaper, legal access to the cannabis he uses to get through the day and sleep through the night.

“I don’t know if I’d be around today without it, honestly,” said Poquette, who uses a cannabis vaporizer to ease symptoms of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and migraines.

Cannabis from a clinic costs double what he’d pay on the street, but it’s worth it, he said, not to have to worry about tainted vapes or trouble with the law. He faced several possession charges during the years he was self-medicating.

But the state doesn’t make it easy to do things the legal way. The long drive to Bloomington usually means taking a day off work.

Minnesota’s medical cannabis program, he said, is “set up in such a way, it almost feels like somebody wants it to fail.”

If you set out to build something that costs as much as possible while helping the fewest people possible, it might look something like the medical cannabis law Minnesota passed in 2014. Thirty-three states have legalized medical marijuana, but none of them made cannabis as complicated as we did.

It was hard to get into the program for the first year or so; it was hard to get to a clinic if you lived in the southwest, northeast or rural stretches of the state; and despite recent price cuts, medical cannabis is costly. Patients can buy only pills, oils and other processed products, not the cheaper plant or flower.

Minnesota’s program is so restrictive, neither of its two cannabis businesses has ever turned a profit.

Dr. Kyle Kingsley, the former emergency room doctor-turned-CEO of cannabis business Minnesota Medical Solutions, hopes that will change next year. He’s hoping state lawmakers will speed that change along by legalizing the sale of cannabis in flower form.

“I’m very hopeful that we can give people access to flower this year,” said Kinglsey, whose company runs both the Bloomington clinic and the new dispensary coming to Mankato next year.

State lawmakers are starting to talk about full legalization. Eleven other states, including Michigan, have legalized marijuana for anyone — not just people who are dying, or living in pain, or battling terrible diseases.

But as limited as it is, Minnesota’s medical cannabis program has meant the world to patients like Patrick McClellan.

“I don’t even know where I would be if it wasn’t for medical cannabis,” said McClellan, who carries a cannabis vaporizer on a chain around his neck, braced for the next agonizing muscle spasms to hit.

“You’ve had a charley horse before? It’s exactly that,” said McClellan, who has a rare form of muscular dystrophy and lobbied the Legislature to legalize medical cannabis for years. “But instead of just being in your calf, it starts in your calf and then it goes into your shin and then into your hamstrings and then your thighs and then your abdominal muscles, then your arms. It’s mind-bogglingly painful.”

When the first cannabis clinic opened at midnight, July 1, 2015, McClellan was waiting at the door. His disease has progressed over the past 4½ years, but his symptoms have not.

For him, a puff from the cannabis vaporizer works faster and eases the pain and unknots his muscles faster than any of his prescriptions. He hasn’t used opioid painkillers in years.

He wants that same relief for other sick, hurting Minnesotans. He wants a medical cannabis program that’s accessible and affordable for all of them.

“When recreational comes, it will be for adults,” McClellan said. “That won’t help a 14-year-old with a brain tumor.”