By Caroline Cummings

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — There’s increased interest in Minnesota’s medical cannabis program now that patients are legally allowed to purchase dried cannabis flower for smoking, the director of the state program said.

The state is seeing 120 applications per day so far in the month of April, which is double the amount of daily applications before the new law passed last year with bipartisan support allowing dried flower in the program took effect March 1, according to data provided by the Minnesota Department of Health.

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“I think that we knew all along there was going to be some kind of pent-up demand there,” said Chris Tholkes, director of the state Office of Medical Cannabis in the health department. “People have been asking for it for a number of years, and people were hopeful it might be a more affordable price point as well.”

There’s currently close to 33,500 Minnesota patients enrolled in the program, up from 29,000 in December, the health department’s numbers show. Tholkes said some people who dropped off participation are now returning.

The Office of Medical Cannabis asked patients about their interest in dried flower in a survey last year, and 71% of those who responded expressed interest in trying smokable cannabis as soon as it became available. Before the law changed, state-approved dispensaries could only sell cannabis pills, oils and topical products.

“Having the flower definitely adds some attractiveness to folks who were maybe on the fence,” she said.

On Wednesday, supporters of legalizing marijuana for recreational use gathered at the Capitol pressing lawmakers to act. Gov. Tim Walz agrees, tweeting Wednesday to show support for legalization.

Last year, the DFL-controlled House passed a bill to allow Minnesotans to legally buy marijuana, expunge low-level cannabis convictions, and provide grants and loans for small businesses trying to tap into a newly-legal industry.

The legislation went nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate, and that’s unlikely to change this year with resistance from many Republicans.

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But there are other efforts at the Capitol this session to tinker with Minnesota’s cannabis laws, including a provision that Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, says will clear up a legal gray area that could impact tribal members who are part of a cannabis program on their reservation, but could face off-reservation possession charges.

The White Earth Nation and Red Lake Nation approved medical cannabis programs in 2020, the Minnesota Reformer reported.

“It’s a real concern I think, and the bill I have just makes it clear that they’re not violating any state laws as long as they are lawfully registered with the tribal medical cannabis program,” Freiberg said.

That proposal made it into a sweeping House health and human services omnibus bill still subject to end-of-session negotiations.

In the same omnibus bill, a provision would allow more state authorized manufacturers of medical cannabis. There are just two right now, and this would increase the amount to a minimum of four but as many as 10.

In a House DFL public safety omnibus bill, there are efforts to lower penalties for first-time possession offenses and to allow people who are on probation or parole to be a part of the medical program, among other provisions.  

The companion public safety bill from Republicans in the Senate does not have any similar policies on marijuana. Lawmakers will need to strike an agreement before session ends next month.

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To qualify for the state medical cannabis program, Minnesotans need to be certified with one of 17 medical conditions.

Caroline Cummings