University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Don't Call Her Pot Czar

Alumna Michelle Larson runs a tight ship at Minnesota’s Office of Medical Cannabis.

Photo by Scott Streble

As a former member of Minnesota’s Air National Guard, Michelle Larson seems an unlikely candidate to lead the state’s first Office of Medical Cannabis. But dig a little deeper and it’s clear she is well equipped for what can be a complex, controversial job. For starters, she was already a 10-year veteran of the Minnesota Department of Health when she became cannabis director in 2014. “I have a background in government, not cannabis,” Larson says.

Although she was warned that the job could be a political hot potato—medical cannabis is legal in Minnesota, but federally, it remains illegal—Larson was keen to take on the challenge. “I was thinking that if we are going to have a medical cannabis department here, I want to be the one to lead it,” she says. “Because it has to be run as best we can—with quality and efficiency— and my training has prepared me for that.”

In addition to her tenure with the Department of Health, Larson worked as an environmental health specialist and on an emergency pharmaceuticals program after the 2001 anthrax scare. She holds a Ph.D. (’16) in organizational leadership, a master’s (’07) in public affairs, and multiple public health certificates from the University of Minnesota. A native of Wisconsin, she also has a bachelor’s in health promotion from the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Larson doesn’t rattle easily. Nor does she lack compassion. “My goal is that our office responds to every single person who contacts us,” she says. “These are very sick people with severe chronic conditions. They all deserve to be treated with respect.”

Larson’s first task as cannabis director was to designate two manufacturers—Leafline Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions—and eight distribution sites throughout the state. The medical marijuana they produce, in the form of pills, liquids, oils, or vapors, contains various amounts of THC, the chemical compound responsible for pot’s signature euphoric high.

To receive a medical marijuana prescription, patients in Minnesota must have one of 11 qualifying conditions, which include cancer associated with severe pain, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, terminal illness, and PTSD. In July, autism spectrum disorder and obstructive sleep apnea will be added to the list.

Each year, members of the public can petition to add new conditions. “We scrub through the literature when a new condition is proposed,” Larson says. The potential efficacy of cannabis on sleep apnea, for example, took her and her team by surprise. “We were shocked by the literature and the potential success in trials that showed cannabis may play a role in relaxing the nerves in the neck.”

Getting relief from medical cannabis isn’t cheap. It’s not covered by health insurance and generally costs patients $200 to $1,500 per month.

Larson’s office regularly surveys medical cannabis users to see how much relief they are receiving. “It’s been all over the board,” Larson says. “Some people tell us it’s no help at all and others say it has allowed them to work, eat, and exercise again. For some it replaces other meds, for some it’s used in addition to traditional meds. But all of them are grateful for the opportunity to try it.”

Read More