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State works to ready medical pot program

James Nord//July 18, 2014

State works to ready medical pot program

James Nord//July 18, 2014

The legislative fireworks surrounding Minnesota’s medical marijuana law may have faded into memory, but now it’s the stuff of bureaucratic timelines as the state labors to bring the program to fruition in a timely manner.

The Department of Health, which will oversee the program, is now moving on a number of fronts. That’s good, because there’s little to spare: The legislation requires marijuana products to be available to patients with select qualifying conditions by July 2015. The political bluster and posturing around the controversial law have been replaced by the urgent efforts of state staff to implement it.

“I would say we feel like we have a good start,” Manny Munson-Regala, an assistant commissioner in the Health Department, said on Thursday. “I’ll feel better once I actually see applications in hand.”

The applications to which Munson-Regala referred are the ones the state expects to receive from firms looking to become one of the two legal medical marijuana producers and distributors in the state. Officials plan to have a draft request for applications ready on Aug. 1, along with a working draft of rules to govern the program.

In the meantime, their efforts will include holding task force meetings, hiring staff for the state Office of Medical Cannabis, building out a system to create a patient registry, and forging rules to flesh out the legislation’s broad strokes. That work is currently underway, and the department hopes to have the office’s director chosen by next week. The search for candidates for two other key positions — a medical researcher and an operations manager — is likewise in motion. Those managers, in turn, will staff an office expected to hold about 10 employees, according to the department.

Moving on multiple fronts

Rep. Carly Melin, the DFLer who authored the medical marijuana proposal in the state House, said that the conclusion of legislative battles over the measure has come as a relief. But she and others involved in implementing the plan — Melin is a co-chair of a medical marijuana task force established in the legislation — acknowledge how important it is that the ramp up work be done quickly and well.

A significant part of that resolve reflects a concern for patients, Melin said in an interview on Thursday, noting that they need the medication to improve their quality of life, or even extend it. Munson-Regala, who’s been tasked with overseeing the establishment of the office, also feels the pressure. So far, he said, the nascent program is on track.

“Obviously we have some pretty tight deadlines,” Melin said. “It’s important to me that we stay on track, because I don’t want patients to have a delay.”

Gov. Mark Dayton announced 16 appointments to the Task Force on Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research about a week ago, and the group is set to gather for a first meeting on July 31. Co-chair Melin said the working group of patients, health advocates and law enforcement representatives will get an update from executive branch officials on how the program’s ramp-up is going.

In the future, the group will evaluate how the program is operating and consider policy issues around medical marijuana in order to provide recommendations to the Legislature.

Melin said she hopes that the members of the task force, which includes law enforcement officials who opposed a more permissive medical marijuana plan, will put personal prejudices aside when coming up with recommendations. The compromise proposal that Dayton signed at the end of May was crafted with law enforcement input.

“My hope is that everybody has a very open mind no matter what their views are on medical marijuana or marijuana in general,” Melin said.

Activists who support recreational marijuana use aren’t impressed.

“I think it’s an unfair balance. Minnesota NORML would love to have a representative on there,” said Randy Quast, executive director of the organization, of the task force. “It’s geared more towards prohibiting it than it is toward allowing the benefit of it.”

Vendor interest expected to be high

The restrictive plan that lawmakers passed this year allows for two firms to manufacture marijuana products and distribute them through a total of eight dispensaries across the state. Though proponents of a more expanded plan that would allow smoking or vaporizing flower marijuana raised concerns that companies in other states wouldn’t come to Minnesota, anecdotal reports suggest that isn’t the case.

Melin said she’s still getting calls from interested parties.

An Aug. 8 gathering in St. Paul that’s been scheduled to introduce Minnesota’s laws and draft regulations to interested marijuana manufacturers should provide a clearer sense of the companies looking to break into Minnesota’s market.

Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade association, said a conference it held in Denver in late June drew 1,200 attendees — about twice as many people as expected. Though Minnesota’s gathering will likely be much smaller, West said it’s a good move.

“I certainly think it is a positive step in an overall program,” she said. “Our experience as we have observed things in other states is that the more the regulatory leadership includes people who are already involved in the industry in various ways, as well as patients in the process, the more successful it is.”

But the draft rules proposal set to come out in August did cause West some concern. The Health Department is supposed to finalize the rules just a month later, in September. Munson-Regala said the working document set for release on Aug. 1 would be half or three-quarters complete and would be fleshed out on the basis of discussions with stakeholders.

“That’s not very much time,” West said. “It doesn’t give a lot of time for input to be made.”

Those concerns, however, won’t alter the Health Department timeline for launching the program. Requests for manufacturer applications will go out in September, and two will be chosen in December to ensure the cannabis flows in July. Under the law officials could opt to delay the program’s launch by six months, but Munson-Regala said the department is working to avoid such a move.

“They’ll just have to make it work,” Melin said with a laugh.

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