All of the planned Minnesota medical marijuana dispensaries are just about up and running, which means the state is better equipped to handle an expansion of the program that could mean thousands more patients. (Photo by Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

More Minnesota medical marijuana clinics means less driving for patients

The opening of the last two of eight clinics readies the state -- which has the country's most restrictive laws -- for an expansion that could bring thousands into the program in its second year

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The final two Minnesota medical marijuana dispensaries are set to open Friday, July 1, bringing all eight clinics online ahead of a critical expansion that could bring thousands more patients into the program in its second year.

Lawmakers gave the state’s two manufacturers time to open the eight locations required by the law that legalized medical marijuana; just two were open when the program launched last summer, both in the Twin Cities. LeafLine Labs’ final two clinics opening Friday — in St. Paul and Hibbing — brings the program to full strength, shortening drives for patients and their parents.

Friday also marks the first full year of legal medical marijuana sales, marked by high costs and lackluster patient enrollment that came with one of the most restrictive laws in the country. No plant form is allowed, and only patients with a handful of severe conditions like cancer, seizure disorders or multiple sclerosis can qualify. In a month, however, patients with intractable pain will be added to the program — a condition that’s dominated medical marijuana business in other states and could boost Minnesota’s registration beyond the roughly 1,500 at last state count.

The new shops are a boon to people like Angie Weaver, who has made 400-mile round-trips from her home in Hibbing to Eagan, the closest spot to buy the medical marijuana that she calls “a miracle” for treating her daughter Amelia’s severe seizure condition. As of Friday, it will be just a few miles down the road.

“This location opening up for northern Minnesota is so important,” Weaver said. “It was just immediate for Amelia. It’s the best treatment we’ve ever found.”

The new locations bookend a rapid development for the program — just three dispensaries were open for much of the first year in Eagan, Minneapolis and Rochester, and clinics in Moorhead, St. Cloud and Bloomington recently opened.

The expansion also sticks the companies that grow, refine and sell marijuana products with additional costs. But officials from LeafLine and Minnesota Medical Solutions, the state’s second manufacturer, are confident their business is on the right track.

“We want to be in every corner in the state,” LeafLine chief executive Andrew Bachman said. “We want to make this as convenient as possible. We want to make this as accessible as possible.”

Kyle Kingsley, Minnesota Medical Solution’s chief executive, said they’ve softened the financial blow of expansion by limiting hours at their newest locations; in Moorhead, they’re open just a few times a month until the business picks up.

Kingsley and Bachman stressed medical marijuana’s potential to replace narcotic drugs for pain treatment and sounded emboldened by the likely influx of patients with intractable pain starting Aug. 1, but neither really know what to expect. The two companies will start getting a better idea in July, when patients can begin getting a doctor’s approval to register for the program.

Both companies have drawn up plans for expansion their production centers, where the marijuana is grown and cultivated into medicine.

“This is an industry that is based upon adaptability and agility,” Bachman said.