Middle school teacher Sarah Wellington is about to play a key role in guiding Minnesota policy on medical marijuana.
A 40-year-old with multiple sclerosis, Wellington was asked by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to apply to join a state-mandated 23-member task force on medical cannabis therapeutic research. It's a group of legislators, health care experts, law enforcement officials and drug abuse experts that meets for the first time in 10 days. It includes potential users of state-sanctioned marijuana — people with cancer, epilepsy, Crohn's and other diseases.
"I am a prospective consumer," Wellington said. "The things I've read in alternative medicine, the talks I've had with other patients who have MS — I do think MS would be one of the ones that would be supported through the use of marijuana."
The Legislature approved medical marijuana in pill and oil forms this spring. The state's health department is now ramping up its Office of Medical Cannabis, the regulatory group that will oversee medical marijuana production and use. It's expected to name a director this week as it gears up to get into the medical marijuana business. But it will probably be almost a year before Wellington or any other Minnesotan get an order filled for medical marijuana.
There are three main projects looming for the state.
• Officials have to determine if there is an existing source for the medical marijuana Minnesota is expected to need.
The law passed by Minnesota this spring calls for the state to determine if the federal government can supply it. There's an August 1st deadline for that decision.
"There is a farm, licensed by the National Institute of Drug Abuse in Oxford, Mississippi, at the University of Mississippi, that grows the only federally sanctioned cannabis," said Manny Munson-Regala, an assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Health who is setting up the medical marijuana office.
But Munson-Regala doesn't think that state will qualify for the federal supply, because it's meant mostly for clinical research, which Minnesota isn't doing. "Not to mention that they already have commitments to supply other folks. The other part is that they only supply raw leaf. As you know, under Minnesota law, raw leaf is not acceptable."
That probably means that Minnesota will have to grow its own.
State law allows for two producers to grow, process and provide the drug to registered users, in a limit of eight locations. The state is thinking of giving each company a mandate to locate distribution centers in either odd or even numbered congressional districts to assure geographic diversity.
Preliminary regulations are expected to be released Aug. 1 and manufacturers could start operations as soon as December. Sale of their products is to start July 1, 2015.
• The second task for the state is to set up the agency to solicit and regulate that business.
Health officials expect to have about 10 people working in the Office of Medical Cannabis. After a director is hired, a research director, operations manager and policy expert will be brought on board.
• Finally, the new law sets up that 23-member board.
The board will convene for the first time July 31, and watch over the establishment of the Office of Medical Cannabis.
"They're going to provide direction to the legislature informed by the experience of implementing the OMC to help the legislature think about broader policy implications," said Munson-Regala.
The board is supposed to give a complete picture of the patient registration system to the Legislature in February, and report on the impact of medical marijuana starting in 2017.
For her part, Wellington wonders how serious Minnesota is about medical marijuana. She said the new medical marijuana law allows the state to put off distribution until 2016, a delay that she thinks is unnecessary.
"I think we're really dragging our feet. Either we're going to do it in Minnesota or we're not, and being part of the task force is to see where we're really at," Wellington said. "If you look at the makeup of task force, I don't know all the members, but it seems to be heavily weighted to the 'no we're not going to do it.' Maybe I'm wrong."