Next week, the Minnesota Department of Health will name the two companies it has selected to grow and refine the state’s entire supply of medical marijuana.
While some communities are ready to welcome new agribusinesses, others have taken steps to block marijuana outlets from setting up shop.
The city of Duluth, which spent years battling a downtown head shop, just passed a six- to 12-month moratorium on any talk of zoning for medical marijuana manufacturing or dispensing facilities. The Minneapolis suburb of Richfield passed a similar moratorium in October after two different cannabis companies approached the city about setting up dispensaries there, should they get the nod from the state.
“From our perspective, what’s really important is to get ahead of the game and figure out how, or where, those facilities might fit into our community,” City Manager Steve Devich said at the time.
But other communities, including Cottage Grove and Willmar, have already greenlighted potential marijuana operations. And patients and their families say they’ll travel as long or as far as it takes to get access to their medicine, once it becomes legal next summer.
Kristy Kargel is counting the days until she can legally buy medical marijuana for her 9-year-old daughter, Emily. The girl suffers from a severe seizure disorder that has resisted surgery, special diets and at least 24 other types of drugs. Cannabis oil has dramatically reduced seizures for other children with epilepsy, and Kargel is hoping for the same miraculous results for Emily.
“July 1 can’t get here soon enough,” said Kargel, who lives in Stillwater. “I am willing to drive. If it’s six hours, I will drive six hours to get her medication.”
When July 1 rolls around, many Minnesotans will barely notice that their state has joined with 22 others to legalize medical marijuana. There may be only two distribution sites in the entire state by then, and they’ll be located in communities that welcomed them.
“It’s going to look more like going to a clinic than it feels like going to a head shop” when people visit these dispensaries, which will include on-site pharmacists to fill every prescription, said Assistant Health Commissioner Manny Munson-Regala. “It’ll be much more of a consultative, patient-centered exercise, rather than a retail facility where people are trying to sell you stuff.”
A narrow law
Minnesota passed one of the most tightly regulated, narrowly focused medical marijuana laws in the country. The state limits the number of dispensaries in the entire state to just eight — four per manufacturing operation, scattered throughout the state. The state also limits the number of conditions that can legally be treated with the drug — qualifying conditions include certain cancers, seizure disorders, glaucoma and terminal illnesses.
Minnesota will also ban the drug from being sold in its raw plant form. The two manufacturers announced Monday will have to process the cannabis into oils, pills and other non-smokable forms.
Like any other business, communities have the option of deciding whether they want to zone it into town, Munson-Regala said. While some communities put on the brakes, others saw a business opportunity.
While Duluth has hit pause on the medical marijuana debate, the neighboring town of Proctor, 8 miles away, approved zoning for a marijuana manufacturing facility in town after it was approached by two different companies.
Marijuana is a fledgling industry — and one that’s still illegal on the federal level and in more than half of U.S. states. But as more states legalize the drug for medical use and debate full legalization, one industry trade publication, Marijuana Business Daily, estimates that legal cannabis could bring in $4.5 billion to $6 billion nationwide by 2018.
The state of Michigan, where 120,000 patients were approved to buy medical marijuana last year, estimated that it made $10.9 million in revenue from application fees in 2013.
A dozen companies applied — and put down $20,000 nonrefundable application fees — to become one of the two medical marijuana manufacturers. The state has not yet revealed the names of the applicants, and their identities are just another of the unanswered questions dogging Minnesota’s fledgling medical marijuana program. It’s not yet known how many patients will apply for the program, or how much the marijuana will cost.