What Utah Can Expect From Medical Marijuana, Through The Lens Of Minnesota’s Experience

Nov 8, 2018, 10:15 PM | Updated: May 21, 2023, 4:01 pm

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – 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 C.E.O. of Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of only two companies in ‘The Land of 10,000 Lakes’ that are legally permitted to grow marijuana.

Dr. Jay Westwater is C.E.O. of Minnesota Medical Solutions.

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 epileptic seizures almost daily for 22 years – severe seizures.

“Yeah, life-threatening, every single one that he has,” she said on a recent visit to the dispensary where she buys Alec’s marijuana medicine.

The cannabis has dramatically reduced the seizures and at age 27, he’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 syndrome. And yet, since he began taking medical marijuana, his mother said his behavior has greatly improved.

Tyler Kennedy’s parents say his behavior has greatly improved since he began taking medical marijuana.

“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.

An experiment

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 weed, Minnesota Medical Solutions uses no pesticides. Tiny orange ladybugs can be seen patrolling the marijuana leaves; the company imports them 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.

Legal marijuana products manufactured in Minnesota.

Patients suffering from one of several legally specified ailments must be certified to use cannabis by a participating healthcare 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 syndrome, ALS, seizures/epilepsy, severe spasms, Crohn’s disease, PTSD, 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, Minn. 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.”

As in Utah, law enforcement agencies initially fought legalization. But they ultimately accepted a very strict compromise bill, according to Faribault, Minn. 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 he fears is gaining political momentum in Minnesota as well as in the rest of the nation.

This is the first in a three-part series exploring lessons learned on medical marijuana from other states.

PART 2: What Minnesota Has Learned About Cost, Side Effects Of Medical Marijuana

PART 3: From Medical To Recreational: Lessons From Minnesota And Colorado In Marijuana Debate

KSL 5 TV Live

Local News

FILE: Credit and deposit cards on a computer keyboard. Electronic commerce, business. Online shoppi...

Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage

Utah family says their bank refuses to reimburse fraudulent charges

A Taylorsville family says a hacker drained thousands of dollars out of their bank accounts and left them overdrawn by tens of thousands more. They thought federal banking rules protected them, but they say their bank has refused to reimburse them for those losses.

41 minutes ago

Many Utah families are struggling to find and pay for child care.(KSL TV)...

Daniel Woodruff

‘This is not sustainable’: How the child care crisis impacts Utah

It's a major concern for many Utah families – finding and paying for child care.

53 minutes ago

Judge Patrick Corum hears arguments about Attorney General Sean Reyes’ work calendar on Monday, F...

Annie Knox and Daniella Rivera

Judge to rule if public gets to see Utah attorney general’s work calendar

KSL and the Utah Attorney General’s Office squared off in court over whether the A.G.’s calendar should be publicly available.

3 hours ago

Utah schools could soon be required to have an armed guard in them if a big school safety bill pass...

Lindsay Aerts

Bill requiring armed security guards in Utah schools heads to full Senate vote

Utah schools could soon be required to have an armed guard in them if a big school safety bill passes the Utah Legislature.

4 hours ago

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is preparing to perform its last two concerts in the Philippi...

Dan Rascon

Tabernacle Choir prepares to perform at renowned Mall of Asia with Filipino press day

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is preparing to perform its last two concerts in the Philippines with a press day. Afterward, the choir will continue on with its world tour.

4 hours ago

Two nonprofits, including the Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation in Price, are stepping up to he...

Mike Anderson

Animals displaced in wildlife rehabilitation center move

As the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah is preparing to move animals out of its current building, two smaller nonprofits are scrambling to help.

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Users display warnings about the use of artificial intelligence (AI), access to malicious software ...

Les Olson

How to Stay Safe from Cybersecurity Threats

Read our tips for reading for how to respond to rising cybersecurity threats in 2023 and beyond to keep yourself and your company safe.

What Utah Can Expect From Medical Marijuana, Through The Lens Of Minnesota’s Experience