MN Health Department is asking cannabis growers to help shape new program

State officials don't know squat about pot. But in time, they will.

The rules governing Minnesota's medical cannabis program, which went out last week, are only a first draft based on conversations with other states and a review of relevant literature. They are an impressive one at that, but a best guess of what it takes to get off the ground in a crazy quick period of time.

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By December, the health department must be able to judge the merits of a cannabis growing operation and award certificates to two "manufacturers." For help, those same officials are urging applicants to be honest and to create guidelines for things like security and chemical composition.

On Friday, Manny Munson-Regala, an assistant health department commissioner and a lawyer by training, told an auditorium of potential growers, "We need your guys' input."

Although there's nothing in the law prohibiting the state from partnering with growers, it's obvious that the state wants to put healthy distance between itself and the program. If Uncle Sam ever intervenes, Minnesota can say it's only doing its duty as a regulator. Everyone else is completely exposed and left with an intimidating number of what ifs.

The cost of getting set up as a grower is enormous -- about $10 million, according to Eric Reichwald, a local political consultant who now works for the Colorado-based Tears of Luv, which is hoping to get into the laboratory side of the equation. The state requires that each manufacturer contract with a third party to test samples and assure that what's going out to the public is consistent and safe. That by itself is a $1 million operation.

The commissioner of public health, Dr. Ed Ehlinger, is said to be considering whether "intractable pain" should be added to the list of qualifying conditions. If he does, it'll add thousands more people to the program, and force the manufacturers to act quickly and meet the new demand.

So who's bold enough to take on all this risk and pressure and expense? Some are obviously in it to make a buck (or try to) while others frame it as a Great Moment in History. Chris Stubbs, a scientist who's working with a mystery client from Colorado, speaks of the plant's ability to change lives.

"People are in tears," he says. "They can eat and sleep and bang their wives again. That's literally what they're telling me."


Friday's presentation also highlighted several gaps in the law, which might need to be clarified during the next legislative session. They include whether employees of the manufacturer can also be patients, whether lawyers can offer advice without getting arrested, and whether banks can provide funding.

Doctors, meanwhile, have nothing to fear. Rather than prescribe pot, they're only going to be responsible for validating a patient's illness. In turn, patients need to receive regular treatment. But their protection under the law ends as soon as they're caught with any amount of green leafy cannabis. (Only pills and liquid products are acceptable.)

That last point is an important one. One year ago, any patient caught smoking a joint would have received a ticket. Now that same patient would be hauled to jail. In this sense, the bill approved last session by Minnesota lawmakers, and signed by the governor at the behest of his law enforcement pals, created tougher cannabis laws for those who need it most.

Some folks took the mic during Friday's presentation to give the state officials a piece of their mind, but most fell flat. One dude accused the state of trying to engineer a cannabis program backward -- which is true. But it has no other choice.

The health department tried to stop the bill from passing, but now it's tasked with making sure that things go so smoothly that the feds don't have an excuse to jump in. There's a fine balance here: The program needs to be proscriptive enough to function, but flexible enough that the end goal isn't lost.

At one point in the presentation, someone in the crowd asked Munson-Regala, the assistant commissioner, whether preferential treatment would be given to Minnesota growers.

"I don't care where they come from," he replies, "as long as they take care of my patients."