ST. PAUL - Two companies will supply medical marijuana to Minnesotans with certain ailments beginning next year, but some patients, including those living in and around Duluth, will be forced to drive more than an hour to access that supply.

The Northland’s only distribution center for medically prescribed marijuana will be in Hibbing at a small strip mall at 3899 Minnesota Highway 73, and that facility may not open until mid-2016.

The state Health Department announced Monday that Cottage Grove-based LeafLine Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions in Otsego will be allowed to grow marijuana and process it into liquid, pills and vapor to help people with specific illnesses. Both are for-profit firms.

A state law passed earlier this year allows patients to begin receiving medical cannabis, the official name of medical marijuana, but continues to make it illegal to use it in plant form, including smoking it.

Twenty-nine organizations originally expressed interest in growing and producing medical marijuana projects, and a dozen submitted applications.

LeafLine, partially owned by the Bachman floral family, plans to open a distribution center in Eagan next year, with sites in Hibbing, St. Cloud and St. Paul opening by July 1, 2016.

The company aims to break ground for its Cottage Grove growing and processing facility yet this month.

Minnesota Medical Solutions already has facilities built in Otsego and is expected to begin growing plants this week. Patients should be able to buy its products in July in Rochester, Maple Grove, Minneapolis and Moorhead.

MinnMed and LeafLine distribution sites are tentative because before they open they must receive local government approval. Also, state officials may decide to change the sites if needed to better serve patients.

Hibbing Mayor Rick Cannata declined to comment on the prospective medical marijuana dispensary when contacted Monday.

While one location where medical marijuana will be distributed is in each of the state’s eight congressional districts, state officials admit it will be a long haul for some patients. Duluth residents would face more than a 150-mile round trip to Hibbing.

Assistant Health Commissioner Manny Munson-Regala said officials will monitor where patients live, and the state could change where distribution centers are located. Legislators also could amend the law to allow more distribution centers.

LeafLine co-founder Dr. Andrew Bachman said that he and his business partner, Dr. Gary Starr, both are board-certified emergency physicians.

“Our focus first and always is on patient care,” he said.

“We’re focused on reaching out to all Minnesota’s patients in need, and certainly population centers like Duluth are likely to have a higher need, but we will know quite soon as the Department of Health preregisters patients in the next several months where those patients who qualify and are in need of medicine are located. We’d certainly love to be there,” Bachman said.

For the moment, however, any plans to one day set up shop in Duluth are on hold. Last month the Duluth City Council placed a six-month moratorium on any prospective medical marijuana facilities, providing time for city staff to consider how such businesses should be zoned and located in the community.

Marijuana takes four months to more than six months to mature, so some plants could be ready just before the July deadline.

While the two companies are set to grow marijuana, state officials are not asking how they obtain seeds or starts for the plants. It is illegal under federal law to transport them across state lines and state law makes it illegal to grow marijuana anywhere but in the two facilities.

Bachman said many unknowns face suppliers of medical marijuana.

“This is a very unique industry in that the patient number today is zero, but they propose that initially it will be around 5,000,” he said. “Nobody knows for sure. So the rate at which we open the new dispensary locations will highly depend upon reaching out to those Minnesota patients in need.”

Minnesota is the 22nd state to approve use of medical marijuana, a decision that came in the Legislature amid controversy because some doctors doubted whether it should be legalized and some law enforcement officers feared that inadequate security could lead to marijuana plants being available to Minnesotans.

Starr said that enough research has been done to prove that the product can be effective for symptoms listed in state law. Both companies emphasized security measures they have in place.

Bachman praised state lawmakers for their cautious approach, saying: “Minnesota’s bill is fortunately unique, and I would argue the most medical of all of the medical cannabis programs that have been launched. And we aim to help make it successful and make it the program to be emulated in this industry in the United States.”

News Tribune staff writer Peter Passi contributed to this report.

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