Hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs crowded into an auditorium Friday, hoping to get in on the ground floor of Minnesota's new medical marijuana marketplace.
More than 250 people -- some in power suits, some in dreadlocks -- signed in for a six-hour seminar with the Minnesota Department of Health. Minnesota has less than a year to figure out how to grow, process and distribute the drug before the first patients begin lining up to buy it legally in July 2015.
Every ounce of legal marijuana grown in the state will come from two manufacturers the Health Department will license this winter. Becoming one of the two won't be easy. Just to get a foot in the door, prospective manufacturers have to come to the state with a secure production facility already prepared and a $20,000 non-refundable application in hand.
"I'm a little dismayed," said Don Wirtshafter, an attorney and hemp activist from Athens, Ohio, who is consulting with one of the prospective manufacturers.
He worries that only the wealthiest, well-connected investors have a shot of being selected or of staying afloat in the first few startup years.
"They're not willing to let the free market work here. They're controlling it from the very start," he said. "Only the huge companies can survive. If you don't have $20 million, don't even start."
Minnesota's two marijuana manufacturers will grow and refine tjhe cannabis into pills, liquids and oils -- smoking marijuana will still be illegal -- for sale through eight regional distributors.
At Friday's hearing, prospective manufacturers peppered state regulators with questions about everything from marijuana taxes to union protections in the workplace. Assistant health commissioner Manny Munson-Regala acknowledged that the startups will face a great deal of uncertainty, and no certainty of profit in the beginning.
"We cannot come up with all the rules (for challenges) you're going to face. This is a huge abyss," he said.
The medical marijuana industry will be tightly regulated. But it's an industry that's starting from scratch, and there are a lot of questions the businesses will have to figure out as they go along -- everything from how to transport the product to how to train the staff and how to dispose of the leftover marijuana after the production process. Then there are the security concerns.
"You're dealing with a cash crop, folks. People are going to want to get at it," Munson-Regala said.