WILLMAR — LeafLine Labs is opening a medical cannabis dispensary in Willmar early next year to better serve patients in southwestern Minnesota.

The new patient center will help meet a growing overall demand for medical cannabis and reduce some of the barriers with access and affordability, said Bill Parker, CEO of LeafLine Labs.

"We know there's a huge market out here that's being underserved," he said. "We felt that we could do more for this population."

The location, in the former Payless Shoes outlet on South First Street, is set to open this coming January — possibly sooner if all the pieces come together, Parker said.

The new dispensary reflects a steadily growing interest and demand for medical cannabis, which became legally available in Minnesota in 2015. According to the most recent numbers from the Office of Medical Cannabis of the Minnesota Department of Health, just under 18,000 patients have had their enrollment approved and are currently active in the registry. Another 1,500 family caregivers have undergone background checks and are approved in the registry to assist approved patients.

Minnesota has 1,600 health care professionals who are registered with the state and authorized to certify patients who qualify for medical cannabis.

The number of qualifying conditions to become eligible for medical cannabis also has been expanding. The list now includes 14 conditions, including intractable pain, PTSD, seizures, autism and Alzheimer's disease.

Minnesota's two registered cannabis manufacturers, LeafLine and Minnesota Medical Solutions, each operate four patient care centers, or dispensaries, for a total of eight across the state.

The dispensaries are primarily in urban areas, however, leaving large swaths of rural Minnesota with long drive times and difficult access to care. In southwestern Minnesota, for example, the closest dispensary is in St. Cloud.

With approval this year for the two manufacturers to each develop four more distribution centers, Parker hopes it will become easier for rural patients to enter and stay with the program. "I think we're going to be able to help them out by reducing their drive time," he said.

Access plus cost — patients pay an average of $280 to $300 a month for their medication, on top of an annual participation fee — are significant barriers for many people, he said. "Those are the two things we hear consistently from patients. It's definitely elevated in the outstate communities. We hear from a lot of people that it's not easy to find a care center."

The Willmar facility is the first additional site that LeafLine Labs plans to open; the company is still in the process of evaluating and deciding on the other three locations.

When it opens, the new dispensary in Willmar will have nine to 10 employees and two licensed pharmacists to see patients and coordinate care. Hours will be Monday through Saturday, with a possibility of adding more staff and hours depending on service growth.

There's a clear market in the Willmar area, Parker said. He expects about 1,000 patient visits a month at the new center initially but sees potential for that to grow.

"We'll be watching that growth pattern very closely," he said. Statewide, as new dispensaries open in previously untapped markets, overall patient volume is likely to increase, he said.

Outreach to the community and to local medical providers will be important as LeafLine's new site in Willmar gets up and running, according to Parker. "I'm hoping our presence here will encourage patients to look more seriously into it. I'm hoping that we get more buy-in from the community."

Of the 33 states that currently allow legal use of medical marijuana, Minnesota's program is among the most restrictive. Only processed forms of cannabis for medical use — liquids, pills, topical applications, vaporized forms and so forth — are permitted. The public can't just drop in at a dispensary; patients must first find a certified medical provider and obtain approval to enroll in the program.

Because it's a cash-only business and supplies of medical cannabis are kept on hand, tight security is reinforced at dispensaries for the safety of patients and staff, Parker said. "That was a big concern from the state early on."

Not every neighborhood welcomes the addition of a medical cannabis patient center, and the issue can spark heated debate both pro and con.

"We have to do our part to stay ahead of that narrative," Parker acknowledged.

But so far, LeafLine representatives have not encountered that in Willmar, he said. "Willmar's been great. We haven't been met with any resistance. We've been met with open arms. ... We're excited about being here."