Minnesota called to order its 90th legislative session in January 2017, and a month later, Rep. Jon Applebaum of Minnetonka introduced a bill to legalize recreational cannabis. Per a news release, the Democratic legislator said, "Minnesotans are rightfully developing different attitudes on marijuana. Other states' successes, along with the failed prohibition attempts of others, validated the need for a statewide conversation."
Asked about the bill, Governor Mark Dayton responded, "I don’t support it. We’ve got enough drugs, an epidemic of drugs that’s floating through our society right now. And law enforcement’s got to deal with all the consequences of it. Whether it’s more or less harmful than alcohol, the fact is, alcohol causes a great many terrible tragedies around the state, on the roads and the like."
Ironically, the state's former governor, Jesse Ventura, is one of the most vocal proponents for legalization. Asked why the state legislature did not back his attempts to legalize non-psychoactive hemp, Ventura said, "All they care about is their reelection and holding onto power, and they resist anything that jeopardizes that. They're spineless cowards."
Minnesota does not have a ballot initiative process, so any form of legalization will have to occur through the state legislature. While the state does have a medical cannabis program, it is one of the most tightly controlled markets in the nation: It allows just two companies to grow, produce and sell cannabis in pill and oil form in one of eight allowed clinics throughout the state, though not all are currently operational.
Despite seed-to-sale tracking and stringent requirements put in place by the Minnesota Department of Health, Vireo Health, a parent company of Minnesota Medical Solutions (one of the two cannabis companies allowed in Minnesota), was accused of smuggling $500,000 worth of cannabis oil to New York. An unnamed employee claimed the company took the oil in an armored GMC Denali in order to meet a deadline in New York’s own medical marijuana program roll-out, for which Vireo Health is also involved.
“These claims were the impetus for the state investigation, and we are confident the claims relied upon by regulatory authorities to begin the investigation will be found to be false,” Vireo Health wrote in an email statement.
Court records show that during a surprise inspection of one of Minnesota Medical Solution’s facilities, state health department officials failed to find documentation on what happened to about 5,585 grams of cannabis oil, which were identified as outbound transfers in December 2015 with no destination listed in the records.
Vireo Health maintains that no foul play was involved, but authorities charged two former company officials, Dr. Laura Bultman (a chief medical officer) and Ronald Owens (chief security officer), with felony charges in early 2017. The court records also name Chief Operating Officer Robert Shimpa as a co-defendant.
Minnesota Medical Solutions continues to provide cannabis oils and pills in pharmacy-like dispensaries throughout the state to an underwhelming number of patients as does its competitor, Leafline Labs. The initial projection was 5,000 patients within the first year, but the lack of locations, high cost, unwilling doctors and a limited list of qualifying conditions has made access to medical marijuana (MMJ) a slow climb.
In 2016, one major hurdle to lackluster patient numbers will be vaulted by adding “intractable pain” to the list of conditions acceptable for MMJ treatment starting in July. Of the limiting factors, according to Minnesota Medical Solutions CEO Dr. Kyle Kingsley, "The biggest one is intractable pain because that's going to pull a lot of folks into the fold that right now are relying on things like opiates and they're a threat to your life with the addiction, the overdose risk. Cannabis just doesn't have those risks."
According to a survey by the Minnesota Department of Health, about 90 percent of MMJ patients reported “mild to significant” benefits during the first three months of the program, an overwhelmingly positive impact for a medicine of any kind, let alone MMJ.
The state is currently being petitioned to expand the list of qualifying conditions and allow for home cultivation and the smoking of actual cannabis flower, both of which are currently illegal, though whether it will pass in court anytime soon is unlikely.
Dr. Andy Bachman, an emergency room doctor and cofounder of Leafline Labs, is all for the direction Minnesota is heading, citing an article he read about Amelia, a little girl suffering from a very rare form of Dravet syndrome. He was struck by the fortitude of Amelia’s family, who opted to stay in Minnesota and fight for their right to cannabis oil access rather than move to Colorado where the medicine is legal.
“I remember being so moved and impacted by someone who simply believed in this being right and instead of taking the easy road, certainly took the road less traveled by,” he said, according to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. “Rather than becoming a medical refugee and treating her daughter by moving to Colorado, she stayed and fought.… She is an absolute hero to me.”
Stories like these are becoming more common, and legalizing MMJ and decriminalizing cannabis are the first steps in ending prohibition altogether. While cannabis is not decriminalized in Minnesota, it was made a petty misdemeanor in 1976 with no jail time and a max fine of $200, making it one of the most lenient criminalized states in the union for those caught with less than an ounce and a half.
Before the market can expand, however, Dr. Bachman wants to show other doctors and lawmakers that the industry can work.
“Ideology does not change overnight. It’s important to start somewhere,” Dr. Bachman said.