Head-high plants and hope inside medical marijuana warehouse as summer launch date nears

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ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Kim Kelsey walked row-by-row through a maze of hundreds of growing marijuana plants, dumbstruck, ecstatic and near tears at the 2-foot-tall plants and what she hopes they will do for her son.

After nearly 20 years of struggling to get Alec's epilepsy under control, thousands of seizures, countless combinations of pills and weeks of rallying at the Capitol for a bill to legalize medical marijuana, Kelsey focused Tuesday on a smaller number: 56 days. The state's two medical marijuana manufacturers say they'll be ready to start distributing medicine come July 1, and Kelsey saw the evidence firsthand.

"I'm speechless," Kelsey said, standing in front of a row of plants inside Minnesota Medical Solutions' production facility in Otsego with Kathy Engstrom, another mother hoping to treat her son's epilepsy. "And I never stop talking."

For the two mothers, it's a rapid turnaround since the state's law passed last spring yet one that couldn't come soon enough. Kelsey and Engstrom both hope the marijuana oils, vapors and pills available in less than two months will be a miracle, small or large, for their sons.

Minnesota Medical Solutions — or MinnMed — and LeafLine Labs are still growing and cultivating their plants, fine-tuning doses and converting it into the more medicine-like forms that the state allows since the law bans smoking the plant itself. The companies will eventually open eight locations around the state to dispense to an estimated 5,000 patients.

The manufacturers emphasize their approach is rooted in medicine, hoping to establish a repeatable and measureable system that looks more professional than the stereotypical, free-wheeling pot dispensaries of California. But its start looks and smells the same — like a growhouse.

MinnMed's production facility is tucked away in the far-flung Twin Cities exurb of Otsego, inside a plain metal-sided warehouse surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. It's unassuming by design.

"We don't have any better way to protect ourselves than to be anonymous," said Ron Owens, MinnMed's chief of security.

In Minnesota's strictly regulated market, security is paramount. On a tour Tuesday, reporters weren't allowed to take photos inside a monitoring room and were banned from describing the facility's location in greater detail than its city.

MinnMed brought on Owens, a former Secret Service agent, to watch over the facility. They installed a vast network of cameras — but wouldn't say how many — after consulting with casinos about their surveillance systems. All footage and movement in and out of the building is recorded for two years, Owens said.

Kelsey and Engstrom understood the tight restrictions, both to get into the building and to get the medicine. Only patients with a handful of serious conditions like cancer, epilepsy, HIV and AIDS will be eligible to register this summer.

Engstrom said she'd eventually like to see lawmakers add more ailments to that list and expand the number of dispensaries to reach more rural areas. Kelsey agreed — to a point.

"If we didn't start somewhere, we would be nowhere. And look where we're standing," she said.

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