Minnesota picks Michelle Larson to head state's medical pot program


Minnesota's Department of Health finally made its pick to head up the new medical cannabis program yesterday, choosing department vet Michelle Larson to lead the program as it prepares to launch over the next year.

Larson comes to the program after nearly a decade with the department, and while she won't have any say on new policy, she will help guide the shape and logistics of the cannabis program, which is set to go into effect in July 2015.

See also: Here's what to expect at the upcoming cannabis meetings, open to the public

There isn't that much information out there about Larson, but what we do know is this: She's been working in the state's Department of Health since 2004 in varying capacities, starting as a planner and working her way up to deputy director. In her latest role, she's primarily focused on two big issues: obesity and tobacco use.

In a statement, Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger says it's Larson's work across so many issues, from obesity to nutrition to even medical emergencies, that made her appealing to head up the program.

"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. She has the ability to work with people to get things done right."

Even marijuana advocates seemed to be alright with the move, a surprise considering that they've tended to argue against nearly everything about the new program -- like the questionable makeup of the state's task force, how limiting the law is, and how it doesn't legalize pot completely. But MN NORML executive director Randy Quast says that while he's still learning about Larson, he's actually optimistic about what she could do.

Quast specifically points to Larson's background in heading up the state's effort to reduce tobacco use. He says he's sick of seeing states simply using police arrests as the only way to stop the wrong people from using marijuana. He hopes that maybe, like with tobacco, the state can take a new approach to pot, using education, not detainment.

"She must know we can can control tobacco use and bring it down without [arresting people]," Quast told us. "They can work on education and let people know it's not for kids. And hopefully they'll treat pot similarly."

While Larson will lead the new program, her job will mostly be administrative -- managing staff, coming up with program rules, creating a process to pick the manufacturers. The ones who'll still ultimately shape the direction of pot in the state will be legislators and the medical task force, which admittedly has a bend towards restriction.

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.