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Medical cannabis center in Bemidji? Legislators speculate at Chamber event

BEMIDJI -- Area legislators said Thursday it's likely Bemidji will host one of eight medical cannabis distribution centers as part of Minnesota's new medical cannabis bill signed into law by Gov. Dayton the very same morning.

"I would say (chances are) good, because it's the largest city in north, north-central Minnesota," Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, said. "If it's not, it should be."

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, agreed that it was likely. "There's reasonable opportunity," he said.

The discussion on medical cannabis came about at a legislative session wrap-up presentation hosted by the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce because of an audience question asking legislators to comment on the likelihood of a dispensary being located in Bemidji.

Persell said a common misconception about the new law was that it allowed the smoking of full leaf marijuana.

"Just about every time I saw medical 'marijuana' on TV, it was somebody with weed, rolling a joint or something," Persell said. "Such a distortion of what we actually were doing. There's a significant difference."

In fact, the law specifically excludes the smoking of marijuana for medicinal purposes under the new program, which instead focuses on the vaporization, liquid and pill forms of cannabis.

Erickson said the bill appeared to be dead in the water several times, only to be revived.

"It was like a phoenix," he said.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said the bill ultimately worked only because its champion in the House, DFLer Carly Melin of Hibbing, forged a compromise with the law enforcement community, which initially opposed the measure.

"When you really got to down to it, it was Rep. Melin -- who I give all the credit in the world to -- going to law enforcement and saying... 'What can we do here?'" he said.

Melin, who is also a BSU alum, said via Twitter on Thursday although she couldn't be certain Bemidji would host a dispensary, if it is in fact picked it would prove a good location since the city is a "regional & medical hub" for northwest Minnesota.

The new medical cannabis law allows two as-yet-unknown manufacturers to operate four distribution centers each, for a total of eight. Where the centers are located depends on the choice of both the manufacturer and the Minnesota Department of Health, which will regulate the medical cannabis program.

"These facilities will be located based on geographical need and to improve patient access," the MDH website said. "No specific locations have been identified yet, and the process of selecting the locations will require input from the selected manufacturers."

In response to a Pioneer question on the likelihood of Bemidji being chosen as a dispensary, MDH spokesperson Mike Schommer said it's too early to tell.

"Until we have manufacturers selected, until those discussions have taken place, it's really tough to say which particular communities might have a dispensary," he said.

Schommer said the deadline for the state to select the two manufacturers is Dec. 1, but a process for reviewing manufacturer applications is yet to be established.

"Certainly we're not talking about something starting in the next day or two," Schommer said. "We're talking about a matter of a few weeks before we have anything set up and really firmly established on how this is going to work."

For more information on the new medical cannabis program, visit MDH's FAQ web page at

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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