ST. PAUL, Minn. — Two Twin Cities-area companies will grow and distribute marijuana for Minnesota's medical cannabis program, state officials announced Monday, filling in just one of many blanks as the state gears up to provide the newly legalized treatment.
The Minnesota Department of Health chose Minnesota Medical Solutions, or MinnMed, and LeafLine Labs from a field of 12 applicants, ending a weekslong selection process. Both companies are led by local physicians but will collaborate with organizations involved with medical marijuana in other states. LeafLine Labs has strong connections with the Bachman floral family — several members are co-owners.
Now, a seven-month sprint begins for the providers to get their growing facilities up and running, nail down distribution systems and register patients in time to deliver medication to Minnesotans starting July 1.
"There certainly is plenty of work ahead before we see medical cannabis products available in Minnesota," Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said.
But many questions remain. Among them:
— How many patients will register and where do they live? The Minnesota Department of Health thinks they'll have about 5,000 patients, but it could be as many as 15,000, according to other department estimates.
— Will the state eventually add intractable pain to the limited conditions such as cancer, HIV and AIDS that currently qualify for the program? That could multiply the patient pool.
— And crucially, where will Minnesotans go to get the medicine?
MinnMed and Leafline mapped out locations for the eight total dispensaries in applications that spanned hundreds of pages, but those sites aren't finalized. MinnMed plans to open four dispensaries this summer in Rochester, Maple Grove, Minneapolis and Moorhead. LeafLine will open an Eagan distribution site this summer, with other possible locations in Hibbing, St. Cloud and St. Paul by summer 2016.
If those sites are opened, hundreds of miles would separate residents in northeastern and southwestern Minnesota from their medication. Half of the eight dispensaries would be in a 15-mile radius of the Twin Cities.
State officials and representatives from the two companies have acknowledged the struggle to ensure geographic balance in providing the medicine statewide. LeafLine co-founder Gary Starr said his company kept their dispensary site plans "fluid" to fill any emerging gaps as the program rolls out.
"The wild card in all of that is patient need," said Manny Munson-Regala, an assistant commissioner in the Minnesota Department of Health and the architect of the state's program. "If you can tell me where the patients are, then I can tell you where we need to put distribution facilities. I suspect we're all kind of guessing at this point."
The companies have already firmed up locations for the facilities where they'll grow marijuana and convert it into oil, pill and vapor forms. (State law bans smoking the plant itself.) MinnMed CEO Kyle Kingsley said his manufacturing plant in Otsego will start running sometime this week. LeafLine will break ground on its 42,000-square-foot facility in Cottage Grove later this month.
Officials from both organizations repeatedly emphasized their medical backgrounds in promising to provide safe and effective medication to Minnesotans. And despite the short rollout timeline, they said they were confident they'd be ready to start providing medicine July 1.
"While that date often feels like it is rapidly approaching for us, we deeply appreciate that for many of Minnesota's patients and their families, that date simply cannot come soon enough," said LeafLine co-founder Andrew Bachman.