The city of Bloomington, which once issued a one-year moratorium on medical marijuana, has opened its doors to the state’s next dispensary.
The City Council this week approved plans to open a medical cannabis care center by midsummer. The unanimous vote came after the city spent a year watching how Minnesota’s fledgling medical marijuana program was working in other communities.
“When they said they put in the moratorium to study the issue, that is indeed what they were doing,” said Dr. Kyle Kingsley, CEO of Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of the state’s two medical cannabis contractors.
MinnMed already operates storefronts in Minneapolis and Rochester and will be opening a fourth dispensary in Moorhead within a few months. By state law, the two companies that the Minnesota Health Department tapped to grow, refine and sell the state’s entire marijuana crop must have eight dispensaries open by July 1. Right now there are three.
“We anticipate that Bloomington will, in short order, be our busiest patient center,” Kingsley said.
The site is just 12 miles from the company’s downtown Minneapolis dispensary, but it could allow patients to skip downtown traffic. Dozens of patients already drive from Bloomington to the Minneapolis clinic every month, Kingsley said.
Minnesota’s medical marijuana program is less than a year old and is one of the most restrictive in the country. To get a prescription for cannabis, patients must get their primary care provider to certify that they have one of nine specified debilitating illnesses, which range from cancer to epilepsy to AIDS.
Patients who qualify for the program also have to pay out of pocket for their medication, since no insurance company will cover the cost of a drug that the federal government says is illegal and has no recognized medical use. Even when all eight clinics are open, many areas of outstate Minnesota will be hundreds of miles from the nearest dispensary.
Even so, the number of patients enrolled with the Office of Medical Cannabis has slowly increased. As of Friday, 1,304 Minnesotans were in the program — a number that is likely to increase in August, when the program expands to serve patients suffering from intractable pain.
Twenty-four states have medical marijuana programs, and for many of them, pain patients make up the bulk of their customers. Kinglsey said MinnMed sees 25 to 30 new patients per week. He expects a “modest” increase to perhaps 40 patients per week after the August expansion.
The average patient in Minnesota drives 46 miles to reach a cannabis clinic, according to an April survey by the health department. Right now, the only clinics are in Minneapolis, Rochester and Eagan. MinnMed and its rival LeafLine Labs have two months to open their remaining clinics in Bloomington, Moorhead, St. Cloud, St. Paul and Hibbing.
Bloomington Planning Manager Glen Markegard said city officials toured MinnMed’s Minneapolis facility and studied what had happened in other communities with cannabis dispensaries before signing off on the zoning request. The Minneapolis clinic “was very much like a standard pharmacy, not anything too different,” he said.
In Minnesota, medical marijuana is dispensed by a pharmacist and can only be sold as pills or liquids, not in the smokable plant form.
Minnesota’s eight dispensaries will be located in each of its eight congressional districts. MinnMed had been eyeing Eden Prairie for its storefront in the western suburbs. In the end, Kingsley said the company chose a site in a Bloomington strip mall, 5200 84th St. W., that sits close to nearby freeways like I-495 and I-35W.
“We chose the Bloomington site because we feel it’s the most patient-accessible site in the Third Congressional District,” he said.
For more information about Minnesota’s medical marijuana program, visit the Office of Medical Cannabis at mn.gov/medicalcannabis.