Hearings on expanding pot program draw crowds

Dozens of people turned out at public hearings in Rochester and Willmar last week, eager to weigh in on a plan to open Minnesota's medical marijuana program to pain patients.

Pain patients make up the bulk of customers in most states' medical marijuana programs. Minnesota's program, which launched in July, is one of the most restrictive in the nation.

As of Friday, just 395 patients were registered with the Office of Medical Cannabis. Supporters say cannabis is an effective pain treatment, but critics worry that expansion would open the program up to abuse by recreational users.

The health commissioner will decide in January whether to expand the program. For a schedule of upcoming public hearings around the state, visit:

Jennifer Brooks @stribrooks


Two-year bridge project headed for fall completion

The two-year renovation of the Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge passed a milestone last week with the partial opening of a new roundabout on the bridge's east end.

It's the first roundabout for the Twin Ports area.

The roundabout partly opened last week, with eastbound U.S. 2 traffic still detoured to the Blatnik Bridge. The Bong Bridge renovation work should be completed in November, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

The roundabout is just one piece of an $11 million bridge renovation project that has forced the rerouting of thousands of vehicles this summer as workers update the Bong Bridge's lighting, paint it and replace structural joints and arch components, among other things.

The Bong Bridge is one of two primary routes linking Duluth and Superior, Wis. The other route, the Blatnik, has carried detour traffic while Bong construction is underway. The reconstruction work is the most significant redo of the bridge since it opened in 1984.

Matt McKinney @_mattmckinney

New Ulm

Grant to help demolish flood-plain structures

The Federal Emergency Management Agency last week granted $646,000 to Brown County to acquire and demolish four homes along the Minnesota River.

The money from the agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program will be matched with $215,000 from the state DNR to permanently remove the structures from the flood plain, all in the city of New Ulm.

The move will "greatly reduce the financial impact on individuals and the community when future flooding and landslides occur in this area," FEMA's Region V Administrator Andrew Velasquez III said in a statement.

Pam Louwagie @pamlouwagie