Editor's note: This is the first in a 3-part series exploring lessons learned on medical marijuana from other states.
MINNEAPOLIS — To some, it is a threat, to others a Godsend. In Minnesota, hundreds of marijuana plants are now growing legally inside a highly secure private facility on the fringes of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
“We’re on camera now, probably from every angle,” said Dr. Jay Westwater as he strolled through an indoor jungle of greenery watched over by banks of security cameras.
Westwater is CEO of Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of only two companies in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" that are legally permitted to grow marijuana.
The humble weed with unusual powers has roiled Utah’s political waters this year, and now the state Legislature is expected to meet in an unusual special session to grapple with it.
Nearly two-thirds of the states have already legalized medical marijuana. Their experiences provide some clues about what Utah can expect now that voters approved Proposition 2 according to unofficial election results.
In Minnesota, the two companies that grow marijuana also process the greenery into ordinary-looking pills, rubs, oils and vapors. Each company runs dispensaries where the drugs are legally sold to certified users.
‘It has meant the world’
When the first cannabis-derived medicines went on sale in 2015, Kim Kelsey was waiting in line at midnight, the first customer in Minnesota for legal medical marijuana.
“I won’t fail to stop smiling,” Kelsey said in a recent interview. “It has meant the world.”
She buys the medicine for her son, Alec. Encephalitis at age 5 left him with brain damage and an IQ below 75, according to his mother. She said he has suffered severe epileptic seizures almost daily for 22 years.
“Yeah, life-threatening, every single one that he has,” she said on a recent visit to the dispensary where she buys her son's marijuana medicine.
The cannabis has dramatically reduced the seizures and at age 27, Alec Kelsey's “500 percent better,” she said. “In the three-plus years that he’s been on it, he has amazed us all, cognitively.”
In a suburb of Minneapolis on a recent autumn evening, 12-year-old Tyler Kennedy threw an angry tantrum in the driveway of his family’s home. He was upset because his father closed the garage door. Tyler’s fuss over such a small issue dramatically illustrated his medical difficulty: he suffers from severe autism and Tourette's syndrome. And yet, since he began taking medical marijuana, his mother said his behavior has greatly improved.
“It is dramatically better than it used to be,” Katie Kennedy said as she watched Tyler’s driveway tantrum die down. “I don’t think we’ve seen a healthier Ty in 12 years. I really don’t.”
Progress reports from teachers at Tyler’s behavioral academy seem to bear that out.
“My reports are getting better and better as to how he’s getting along with other kids,” his mother said, showing off a stack of recent reports. They included handwritten comments from academy staff members with such phrases as 'had an awesome morning,' 'lots of laughing today,' and 'Ty is awesome!'
“I’ve never had staff tell me how much they love my son — in 12 years,” Kennedy said.
The Minnesota legislature approved medical marijuana in 2014 after fierce debate much like in Utah today.
“It’s an experiment, really,” said Dr. Tom Arneson of the Minnesota Department of Health Office of Medical Cannabis. “We make clear in our warning materials that there’s not a lot known about these products.”
Surveys by Arneson’s department show that most users are happy with the results. Sixty-one percent of surveyed users report getting “a great deal of benefit.” Only 10 percent say they derive “little or no benefit” from the cannabis drugs.
Participating health care providers are somewhat less enthusiastic: 43 percent report “a great deal of benefit” for their patients, while 24 percent say their patients receive “little or no benefit.”
The surveys fall a bit short of true scientific evidence.
“People say it’s doing them some good,” Arneson said. “We don’t have a control (group) here, so we aren’t making statements about effectiveness.”
How it works in Minnesota
When growing the marijuana, Minnesota Medical Solutions uses no pesticides. Tiny orange ladybugs can be seen patrolling the marijuana leaves. The company imports the insects to gobble up other pests.
During the marijuana plants’ 16-week growth period, each one is numbered with grocery-store style bar-codes to keep illicit grass from getting diverted onto the streets.
“We have inventory controls and we can track (the plants),” Westwater said. “We know when something might be missing. Opportunities for diversion are really minimal.”
Minnesota law allows no marijuana plant material to be sold. No smoking is permitted. No gummies or brownies are sold. Only eight cannabis patient centers are permitted to dispense medical marijuana in a state slightly larger than Utah. A licensed pharmacist advises each recipient.
Patients suffering from one of several legally specified ailments must be certified to use cannabis by a participating health care provider. The list of approved uses has grown over the last three years as officials added other medical conditions. Currently approved medical conditions include cancer with severe pain or nausea, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Tourette's syndrome, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seizures/epilepsy, severe spasms, Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, intractable pain and terminal illness.
Medical practitioners must enroll in the program in order to certify patients for cannabis use. Even the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, allows its doctors to voluntarily participate.
Maren Schroeder uses it to treat her PTSD.
"My physician at Mayo is my certifying provider," Schroeder said. She is co-founder of a pro-marijuana group called Sensible Minnesota. "What we learned in Minnesota, when we legalized medical in Minnesota, the sky didn’t fall,” she added.
As in Utah, law enforcement agencies initially fought legalization. But they ultimately accepted a very strict compromise bill, according to Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen who also chairs Minnesota’s Violent Crime Coordinating Council.
“So if that can help treat certain kinds of pain, certain types of terminal illnesses, law enforcement isn’t going to stand in the way of that," Bohlen said. "And we haven’t seen really any problems at all since that’s been adopted by this state."
But there are major worries including criticism about astronomical costs, very low participation and serious concern about whether a political door has been opened.
“We continue to get the pressure in the state of Minnesota to just legalize marijuana: why don’t you just legalize it?” Bohlen said.
It’s an idea he firmly opposes, but which Bohlen fears is gaining political momentum in Minnesota as well as in the rest of the nation.