Medical marijuana manufacturers hope to erase stigma of drug

Transplanting cannabis plants
A worker transplants a cannabis plant at LeafLine Labs in Cottage Grove, Minn.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

When Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey announced several months ago on Facebook that his suburb would be soon home to a new pharmaceutical business, residents were ecstatic over the new jobs it would bring.

But a day later, when he clarified that it was for a facility producing medical marijuana, people in the community were stumped.

The reaction on social media, Bailey recalled, was "Wait. What?"

City officials then had to educate themselves about medical marijuana so they could placate residents over concerns ranging from public safety to odor.

In a similar fashion, officials with LeafLine Labs are confident that outreach and education will help them erase stigma of the drug within the medical community. As of Monday, only 14 patients in Minnesota were approved to receive the treatment, which becomes legal July 1.

Many patients have reported difficulty in finding doctors willing to certify them. Dr. Andrew Bachman, LeafLine's chief medical officer, said he has met with physicians and medical associations to persuade them that cannabis is safe and can help patients.

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Dr. Andrew Bachman
LeafLine Labs co-founder Dr. Andrew Bachman lead the media during a tour of the lab in Cottage Grove, Minn. Wednesday, June 17, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

"Ideology doesn't change overnight," said Bachman, an emergency medicine doctor. "And healthcare systems are starting to understand now what this program is."

The number of currently enrolled patients, while low, is "right where we would expect," Bachman said.

Michelle Larson, the director of the state Office of Medical Cannabis, said officials expected a slow start as health care providers begin to familiarize themselves with the program and draft policies. "We're not in a race," she said. "We expect enrollment to rise throughout the year."

On Monday, LeafLine invited reporters to tour the sleek, new 42,000-square-foot facility. A grow room brimming with tables of marijuana plants is so bright that the workers wear sunglasses.

One of the unique concerns about the center — whether it will produce foul odors in the surrounding area — appeared to be answered by extensive air-filtering system that contained the marijuana aroma inside the building.

Tubes of terpenes
Test tubes of terpenes were displayed at LeafLine Labs, June 17, 2015. Terpenes are the oils that produce the various aromas of medicinal cannabis.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

"If you drove by here, you would never know what this facility is, and you will not smell anything," Bailey said. "There will be zero smell coming out of the facility."

But Bailey said he's more excited by the prospect of hundreds of new jobs and growing tax base. Currently, 20 employees work at the Cottage Grove plant, but plans call for up to 200 if the company — and patient demand for the drug — expands, he said.

On July 1, patients suffering from nine qualifying conditions will have two options to receive the drug. LeafLine will open a patient center in Eagan, and Minnesota Medical Solutions will open a clinic in Minneapolis. Six additional clinics are expected to come online across the state.

Bachman, an emergency-medicine doctor, said he never aspired to make medical marijuana. His family is known for running the Bachman's garden center.

"I love plants. At the end of the day, this is a plant," he said. "I aspired to take care of people. This is a chance to do it responsibly, and do it well."