By this time next year, medical marijuana will be legal in Minnesota.
Between now and then, it will be Michelle Larson's job to make sure the state has a way to grow, process and dispense marijuana, and the safeguards in place to ensure the drug gets where it's supposed to go — and nowhere else.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Health named Larson, an environmental health expert with a military background who has spent years implementing thorny Health Department policy initiatives, to head the new Office of Medical Cannabis. She and her staff have until next July 15 to create a medical marijuana infrastructure from scratch.
"Michelle brings a strong background in public policy and administration, as well as a history of working with the public health community, law enforcement and security, pharmacists, health care providers and community members," Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said in a statement. "She has the ability to work with people to get things done right."
Larson most recently served as deputy director of the department's Office of Statewide Health Improvement, where among other things, she worked on campaigns to discourage Minnesotans from smoking.
That won't be a contradiction with her new post. Minnesota became the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana this year, but the bill that passed the Legislature is one of the most restrictive in the nation. Medical marijuana will be dispensed only from a handful of locations around the state, only to patients with certain medical conditions, and only as a liquid, pill, vapor or other non-smokable form.
Two in-state manufacturers will produce all of Minnesota's medical cannabis, which in turn will be distributed at eight sites. Who those producers will be, and where those distribution centers will be located, are among the first issues Larson and her 10-person staff will tackle this summer.
The department hopes to have its two cannabis manufacturers registered by Dec. 1, and patients will begin registering next May. The program will be open to Minnesotans with certain physician-certified conditions, including cancer, seizure disorders, glaucoma and terminal illnesses.
All of this is happening against a murky federal backdrop. Washington still considers marijuana an illegal substance with no recognized medical use, forcing states to make up their own regulations as they go along.
"We're in a weird space between," said Manny Munson-Regala, assistant commissioner for strategic initiatives at the Minnesota Department of Health, who cautioned the applicants who applied for the medical cannabis leadership spot that the job description could change at any time. The federal government could swoop in and shut down state medical marijuana programs, or it could legalize medical marijuana and come in with new federal regulations.
Almost 200 people applied for the job anyway, Munson-Regala said, although only 35 or 40 of them met the minimum qualifications for the job. Interest will likely be even more intense on Aug. 1, when the Health Department releases the first rules for marijuana manufacturers and begins accepting applications.
"That will be interesting to see," said Randy Quast, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Despite the business opportunity, Quast and other supporters of marijuana legalization were disappointed by the narrow scope of the state's new law. "It's such a restrictive law … Just make it legal for everybody."
Larson, who was not available for an interview, starts work on Aug. 13. For more information about the medical cannabis program, visit: www.health.state.mn.us/topics/cannabis/index.html.