OTSEGO, Minn.-Minnesota’s marijuana makeover was kicked into high gear Tuesday with a tour of a new cannabis-growing plant.
“Nine months ago, this was all farmland. It’s pretty amazing,” said Dr. Kyle Kingsley, CEO of Minnesota Medical Solutions, as he led reporters through his sleek new plant in Otsego, about 35 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
The high-tech, ultra-security, super-secret building is one of two marijuana factories in the state. The other is in Cottage Grove, operated by LeafLine Labs.
A year after the Legislature legalized the manufacture of marijuana-based medicines, the two companies are growing and cultivating plants, fine-tuning doses and converting their product to the more medicine-like forms the state allows because the law bans smoking the plant itself. Both say they’ll be ready to start distributing medicine July 1.
Kingsley doesn’t know how many patients will be taking it. “I would say from 2,000 to 10,000 patients, but no one really knows,” he said.
Marijuana’s public-image transition is a little awkward.
The birth of a marijuana industry - when marijuana is illegal under federal law - is somewhat weird, admitted Manny Munson-Regala, an assistant commissioner for the state Health Department.
“By federal law, this is all illegal,” said Munson-Regala, surrounded by about 4,000 marijuana plants. “It’s the manufacturers who are taking the risk.”
He said there is an understanding that anyone making or consuming it for medical purposes won’t be prosecuted. “The legal risk is low, but it is not zero,” Munson-Regala said.
That’s why the marijuana can’t be distributed at drug stores. Drug store chains have refused to take it, Munson-Regala said. So the manufacturers must set up their own distribution centers.
Because of the quasi-legality, doctors can’t prescribe it. They can only certify that a patient has a condition that can be treated with marijuana - such as certain cancers, glaucoma, AIDS, seizures and some terminal conditions.
Those patients will be listed in a statewide registry, allowing them to buy the drugs. Kingsley estimates the cost per patient will be between $300 to $500 a month.
For the tour, reporters were directed to a well-hidden steel building at the end of the gravel road. The address, they were told, is secret.
“We don’t want any gawkers,” Kingsley said.
After everyone had bathed their shoes in a sterilizing solution, the tour began.
Kingsley showed off the “casino-quality” security system that includes about 36 cameras.
Wading through a short forest of marijuana plants, he reached the incubator room. There, young plants are babied in “ebb and flow” trays in which the water runs back and forth.
As they grow, the plants are repotted into successively larger containers.
In the earlier growing stages, the growth lights are on 24 hours a day. Later, when the critical drug-containing buds come out, the lighting cycle is switched to 12 hours on and 12 off. Blackout curtains line the windows, so the 12-hour cycles can be enforced.
Kingsley showed off every scrap of science in the building.
He walked past a set of 5-foot tanks labeled nitrogen and went into the laboratory. There, chemist Conor Smith checked graph-lines on a computer screen.
“This is the Supercritical CO2 Extractor,” he said, describing a device that uses harmless carbon dioxide gas to pull the oils from the marijuana buds.
Kingsley walked past one worker who was gently spooning a powder into each pot. “It’s beneficial bacteria,” he whispered.
Kingsley displayed his products - marijuana oil in pills, droppers and sprayers. He explained that they blend two active ingredients:
l THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. This is why people smoke marijuana - to get high - but THC also has medical value as an appetite stimulant. “It’s for people at the end of life, especially for those with pancreatic cancer,” Kingsley said.
l CBD, or cannabidiol. It is used for treating seizures and is not intoxicating.
At the end of the tour, two women brushed through the THC-laden leaves to give their endorsements.
Kim Kelsey of Excelsior said her 23-year-old son suffers seizures, which started when he had encephalitis as a boy. He now takes 36 pills a day.
Friends and family members are desperate, she said, to find something more effective - such as the marijuana medicines. “They all want to see something for my son,” Kelsey said.
Kathy Engstrom of Rogers said her 17-year-old son suffers frequent epileptic seizures, which other treatments have not stopped. “So many other things have failed,” Engstrom said.
She doesn’t know if the marijuana will help, but is hopeful. “Yes, we want a miracle. But who doesn’t?”