DULUTH – The area’s first medical marijuana dispensary has opened in Hermantown amid a statewide expansion of medical cannabis patient centers.

“It makes a lot of sense to have a medical cannabis dispensary there, in a major population center,” said Dr. Kyle Kingsley, CEO of Vireo Health, one of two state-authorized medical marijuana producers and distributors.

The company’s Green Goods dispensary is just off Miller Trunk Hwy. near the airport. Previously the closest location was a LeafLine Labs dispensary in Hibbing, about 70 miles north.

The number of patients in northeastern Minnesota has grown 60% since the start of the year to more than 1,600, according to state figures, which Kingsley attributes partly to last year’s announcement that a dispensary would be opening in the Duluth area.

“It’s a synergy — once you start announcing you are opening a dispensary you get more interest in the program,” he said. “It will be much more convenient to go to Hermantown.”

There will eventually be 16 dispensaries statewide, double the number originally authorized for the state’s five-year-old program. State legislators signed off on the change last year.

Vireo Health, formerly known as Minnesota Medical Solutions, is also poised to open locations in Blaine and Burnsville by the end of the year and Woodbury by the end of January. The company already had locations in Minneapolis, Bloomington, Rochester and Moorhead.

LeafLine Labs, which has dispensaries in St. Cloud, Eagan, Hibbing and St. Paul, recently opened its newest location in Willmar. Other new locations in Mankato, Golden Valley and Rogers have been delayed by “significant challenges” brought on by the pandemic.

“LeafLine Labs is committed to opening additional locations and improving access to more Minnesotans statewide,” CEO Bill Parker said in a statement. “COVID-19 has slowed our expansion progress down but it has not tarnished our commitment to our patients and to the medical cannabis program. We are currently working to finalize our next three locations and hope to share that information soon.”

The program has expanded more rapidly this year than ever before, with 7,000 new patients added between January and October — a nearly 40% increase. The addition of chronic pain as a qualifying condition this year was expected to boost patient numbers.

About two-thirds of the state’s 25,000 registered medical cannabis patients have intractable or chronic pain, with post-traumatic stress disorder, muscle spasms and cancer the bulk of other patient conditions.

In December, the Department of Health is expected to rule on petitions to add three new qualifying conditions — anxiety, sickle cell disease and tic disorder.

Anxiety had previously been rejected as a qualifying condition, though Kingsley said there is some extra urgency in adding the condition.

“Anxiety is really coming to the forefront during the COVID crisis here,” he said. “I’m confident cannabis is a real alternative to pharmaceuticals for anxiety, though it doesn’t work for everybody.”

Minnesota has among the nation’s most restrictive and costly medical marijuana programs. The biggest changes advocates are asking for is to allow the use of smokable flower/buds instead of only concentrates and extracts. Such a change would require legislative action.

“I think there’s support on both sides of the aisle for this,” Kingsley said. “It’s the most cost-effective way to access cannabis as medicine. People want affordable access to alternatives to opioids.”