Medical marijuana office head Michelle Larson juggles work, doctoral studies

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The task of running Minnesota’s new Office of Medical Cannabis falls to a University of Minnesota student.

Michelle Larson, a third-year doctoral student, is in charge of making sure the state’s controversial medical marijuana program is operating by July 1, 2015. To do so, she has to juggle academic work, professional challenges and raising two young children.

“Trying to balance all that out is complicated, but I’m really well organized,” Larson said.

When Larson started her doctoral degree in the fall of 2012, she worked as a deputy director for the Minnesota Department of Health in a program aimed at improving statewide health.

Larson’s current supervisor, Manny Munson-Regala, said he warned prospective candidates for the office’s director position about the risks of the “high-pressure, high-visibility work.”

“I, frankly, did everything I could to scare away candidates,” Munson-Regala said. “I wanted them to be fully aware of what they were taking on.”

One of the biggest issues inherent in the job is how Minnesota’s medical marijuana program clashes with federal drug laws.

A lengthy presentation to Minnesota’s medical cannabis task force at a meeting last week detailed legal problems other states have faced with their respective programs.

“We are all going to break federal law,” said task force member Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover.

Larson said the possibility of state employees being prosecuted in federal court isn’t at the front of her mind.

“They concern me, but they don’t consume me,” she said.

Instead, Larson said, she’s concentrating on keeping the cannabis program on track while polishing the first chapters of her doctoral dissertation for the independent study course she’s taking this semester.

At work, her concerns turn to providing a safe, useful medicine to patients while contributing accurate information to the medical cannabis field.

Larson estimated she spends 65 to 75 hours between her professional and academic work, and devotes the rest of her time to her family.

“She’s got a lot of balls in the air, and she seems to juggle them very well,” said Jean King, one of Larson’s professors in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development.

Larson said her six years in the Minnesota Air National Guard taught her lessons she now applies across her work.

“I think everything I do requires self-discipline and staying focused, because I am so busy,” Larson said.

Heather Davila, a colleague who shares classes with Larson, described the head of the medical cannabis office as a positive and calm person despite the stress of her full schedule.

“She often brings up real issues [in class] that she sees in the public health world from her experience,” Davila said.

To relax from work and school, Larson said she enjoys running, biking and exploring new towns and state parks with her husband and two daughters.

To meet a state deadline, Larson’s office must decide on and register two state-approved cannabis manufacturers before Dec. 1.

Munson-Regala said the department estimates 5,000 patients will register by the program’s opening next July.

He said he jokes with Larson about her job’s stressful nature.

“I moved a bunch of the migraine in my head into her head,” Munson-Regala said.

Larson credited the success of her balancing act to the support systems in each aspect of her life.

“The people at the health department and the people at the University and then my family allow me to have all these great experiences,” Larson said.