Medical marijuana program on track for summer launch, officials say

A bowl of medicinal marijuana
Medicinal marijuana is displayed during an event in California. Of the 23 states plus the District of Columbia that permit medical marijuana, Minnesota currently has the strictest law.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images 2010

Minnesota will have at least one state-approved medical marijuana manufacturer by Dec. 1, the leader of the state's Office of Medical Cannabis said Thursday.

The prediction comes five months after Gov. Mark Dayton signed the state's new medical marijuana law, and as officials say they remain on track to launch the program next summer.

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The Minnesota Department of Health said it received 12 applications from would-be medical marijuana manufacturers about a month ago. Each plunked down a $20,000 non-refundable fee just to file paperwork in hopes of being among the two the state will eventually approve.

Michelle Larson, who directs the new medical cannabis office, said she's not allowed to divulge any details about the selection process, but did say the process is on track, with officials reviewing applications and visiting potential growing sites.

Michelle Larson
Michelle Larson is the first director of the Minnesota Department of Health's Office of Medical Cannabis
Tim Nelson / MPR News

"We will be ready for Dec. 1," she said. "There's a research report that'll be coming out Dec. 1. There's the announcement of two manufacturers. We're confident that we'll be ready July 1 with all the requirements with regards to manufacturers and the registry for the patients."

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Her staff is also studying scientific research on cannabis and will soon have a report on recommended dosages for prospective patients.

July 1, 2015 is the deadline for the health department to fully implement the law and have medical marijuana available only for the people on the registry. But the statute does allow for a six month extension.

Of the 23 states plus the District of Columbia that permit medical marijuana, Minnesota currently has the strictest law. The drug will only be available in pill and oil form; smoking it is not allowed. And it'll only be available for patients who suffer from any of about 10 qualifying conditions including HIV/AIDS, ALS, and cancer.

Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. In the eyes of Uncle Sam, it's as bad as LSD and heroin and has no currently accepted medical use. That means at any point, federal agents could swoop in and shut down a state-approved dispensary and arrest its owners.

But in a memo last year, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the justice department should focus its limited resources on other enforcement priorities, including prosecuting drug rings and preventing the distribution of pot to minors.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom is part of a state task force on medical cannabis. After a meeting of the panel Thursday night, he said federal prosecutors are not likely to go after Minnesota growers as long as they follow Minnesota's law to the letter, and state regulators do their jobs.

"If that's the case, then I do not think the federal government through the United States Attorney's office will intervene," he said. "They're going to intervene into the problems that might arise if the guidelines set out from the Justice Department aren't followed."

While Backstrom is watching how the measure is implemented from a legal perspective, task force member Maria Botker wants to see that it does right by patients.

Botker's 7-year-old daughter Greta suffers from epilepsy. The western Minnesota mom said a marijuana-derived drug high in cannabidiol but low in THC is better than anything at controlling Greta's seizures, and she moved to Colorado with her daughter temporarily so they could get the drug legally.

Botker's uncertain if either of the two manufacturers the state names next month will produce the exact drug her daughter needs.

"Now we're just waiting and praying that we can get a quality product here," she said. "And what we're doing now is trying to manage her with her other pharmaceutical medications so that she can have a quality of life as best as we can without medical marijuana."

Until she has the drugs from a Minnesota manufacturer and knows they work for Greta, Botker said she's hanging on to her second home in Colorado.