In an Otsego greenhouse, Minnesota's first medical cannabis crop is in bloom.
Young marijuana plants, fuzzy and pungent, stretched toward the skylights as Dr. Kyle Kingsley threaded between the plant beds, leading state media on a tour of the Minnesota Medical Solutions facility that will supply half of Minnesota's legal medical marijuana.
"You'll see this place is pretty Spartan," Kingsley said, walking past bare white walls, concrete floors, and banks of monitors scanning the secure facility and its perimeter. There's a faint skunky smell in the air that hits visitors as soon as they reach the first of the three locked doors that lead into the building. "We put our focus on science and medicine," Kingsley continued, walking among rows of seedlings and plants. More than 4,000 plants and dozens of cannabis strains fill the greenhouses and spill out into the atriums.
The company, which found out in December it would be one of the state's two suppliers, is making plans to expand this summer. "Our focus is on suffering patients and getting patients medicine on July 1."
Minnesota is just months away from medical marijuana legalization. Between now and July 1, these plants will be culled, dried and distilled into enough pills and liquids to serve an unknown number of patients with a limited number of severe medical conditions. The doctors, pharmacists, chemists, horticulturalists and security staff here at Minnesota Medical Solutions say they'll be ready when the company opens its first dispensary July 1 in Minneapolis, with its other three retail locations to follow over the next two months.
LeafLine Labs, which will be producing the other half of the state's cannabis crop, plans to open its first dispensary in Eagan on July 1 as well.
Dr. Andrew Bachman, an emergency room physician and co-founder of LeafLine Labs, said his company will be ready as well.
"It's always challenging to be a pioneer. If trailblazing were easy, everyone would do it," he said. "We're thrilled by the prospect of the smile on someone's face when they get the medicine they need."
LeafLine hasn't opened its facilities to tours yet, but Bachman, who grew up playing in the greenhouses of his family's garden stores, said he has had a "visceral response" to the little marijuana plants growing in his company's facility in Cottage Grove — plants he said society has been taught to view as bad or dangerous.
"The day I first saw our [plants] in our facility, it made me sad and somewhat angry," Bachman said. "I looked at a beautiful little plant … It smells like tomatoes, it grows like a plant, it just happens to have a lot of mysteries and secrets in it that we deserve — and patients are ready — to unlock."
State's different approach
Next to the plant rooms at MinnMed, chemist Conor Smith scans the peaks and valleys on a chromatograph in his laboratory. One peak charts the amount of THC in the cannabis sample — the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana its buzz — and another measures the therapeutic cannabidiol compounds in the sample. This particular 50-50 blend might go to a cancer patient fighting nausea from chemotherapy.
On a table in the next room, a rainbow of bottles shows off Minnesota Medical Solution's product lines — pills, vaporizers, vials and droppers for oils, each color coded green, blue, yellow, purple, according to potency.
Minnesota is taking a uniquely clinical approach to medical marijuana. Instead of sending patients home with a baggie of the drug, cannabis will be sold only in refined pill or liquid form. The system — not popular with some patients who might prefer more traditional and cheaper forms of the drug — does allow the company to control the quality and potency of the drug and to track how effective doses are for patients.
"It's really interesting. Other states aren't doing this," said Smith, who earned his doctorate in inorganic chemistry from the University of Minnesota. Kingsley said the company has been deluged with applications from scientists and clinicians interested in getting in on the ground floor of the fledgling industry. "I like doing research and right now we're turning research into products. It's a very interesting process to try to optimize the research from the plants."
Kingsley began building this facility months before he knew whether the state would select his company as one of its two designated medical cannabis manufacturers. He took the risk, he said, to ensure he'd be ready for the summer start, ready for the patients he saw in his practice who were battling agonizing diseases like pancreatic cancer, and hoping this new drug might offer relief.
Thousands of patients and their families are taking more than a clinical interest in this crop. Kim Kelsey and Kathy Engstrom, who both have sons suffering from serious seizure disorders, joined the tour of the Minnesota Medical Solutions facility.
They don't know if their boys will benefit from medical cannabis, but they're eager to try after their long years of fighting to get the bill passed in the Legislature.
"We have hope," said Kelsey, whose 23-year-old son has suffered from life-threatening seizures since he was 4 years old. "It's given us the first hope that we've had in a really, really, really, really long time."
There are many stories of children and adults with seizure disorders who have benefited from cannabis oil. Even if the treatment doesn't help her son, Kelsey said the state's research into the drug's effectiveness might help others.
"Yes, we want a miracle. Who doesn't if you have a sick child?" she said. "But if it helps a little or it doesn't, at least we can give the state the research … and feedback and maybe it'll help somebody else. It's not all about us. It's about everybody."
'Won't be like Black Friday'
There's no way of knowing how many patients will sign up for the state program. Registration begins in June and the health department's best guess is around 5,000, although that number could jump if the state expands the program next year to include patients suffering from intractable pain. Assistant Health Commissioner Manny Munson-Regala, who is overseeing the cannabis rollout, isn't expecting to see long lines outside dispensaries, like other states experienced.
"It won't be like Black Friday at Best Buy," he said.
Minnesota had less than a year to put its medical marijuana program together, and plenty of people were skeptical that it would be up and running in time, Munson-Regala said. "I feel like we've done the best we could do to ensure that the folks who need medication get it, and abuse is minimized."