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Minnesota Legislature approves medical marijuana bill

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota is on the cusp of joining more than 20 states in legalizing medical marijuana. The state Senate voted 46-16 on Friday for a bill that would provide marijuana in the form of liquids and pills to terminally ill patients and th...

The final vote was on the board
The final vote was on the board for the conference committee version of the medical cannabis bill on the Senate floor at the state Capitol in St. Paul on Friday, May 16, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin)

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota is on the cusp of joining more than 20 states in legalizing medical marijuana.

The state Senate voted 46-16 on Friday for a bill that would provide marijuana in the form of liquids and pills to terminally ill patients and those with eight serious medical conditions.

The House followed suit Friday evening with an 89-40 vote. It now goes to Gov. Mark Dayton, who said Thursday he would sign the bill.

“This is about getting something into the hands of people who have no other available options that are any good at all - people who are suffering,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored a medical marijuana bill in the Senate.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already allow medical marijuana. The issue has been pushed to the forefront in Minnesota this year by families seeking access to the drug for children with severe seizure disorders.


Children take marijuana in the form of a liquid or oil, both forms that would be allowed by the bill. Families say the treatment offers hope, whereas traditional pharmaceuticals offer little relief and significant side effects.

Similar concerns have prompted lawmakers in seven states this year to allow limited access to a form of medical marijuana that’s thought to help with seizure disorders. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Friday that lobbying by patient families made the difference.

“This was not on the legislative agenda of most of us in this room,” Bakk said prior to the Senate vote. “This is a wonderful example of how representative democracy works. A small group of families with their hurting children came to their state government, and they changed the law.”

The legislation asks the state Health Department to select and regulate two in-state marijuana manufacturers that would each operate four distribution centers spread across the state.

Patients would not be able to smoke marijuana or use plant materials in vaporizers, although vaporization of liquids would be permitted. Doctors would have to certify that a patient has a qualifying medical condition.

While legislators approved the bill in overwhelming numbers, some raised concerns Friday about the potential for unintended consequences.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said she feared legalizing medical marijuana would lead to more problems with drug abuse and addiction. Ruud predicted: “It will change the face of Minnesota, people, don’t think it won’t.”

Pointing to the example of how patients have worked the medical system to satisfy addictions to prescription painkillers, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said: “We are again looking at another drug that is going to be doctor-shopped.”


Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, said patients lack information about adverse interactions between medical marijuana and other medications they might be taking.

“I feel like we’re making decisions here based on emotional feelings instead of science, and I don’t think that’s a responsible governing measure,”  Lohmer said.

Dibble, however, argued that there is evidence to show medical marijuana can work for some patients. The bill includes measures to prevent improper diversion of marijuana, he said, adding that states with good medical marijuana programs haven’t seen worse problems with addiction.

Rep. Tina Libeling, DFL-Rochester, said the bill doesn’t tell patients and doctors they must use medical marijuana, but simply gives them the option. When it comes to health policy, it’s not uncommon that legislators must “act without perfect information,” Libeling said.

Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said the bill responds to the needs of patients who aren’t getting help from treatments approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In the case of young children with seizure disorders, most FDA-approved treatments haven’t even been studied on children, Melin said.

“Patients have safe, legal access to medical cannabis in 21 other states,” said Melin, who sponsored medical marijuana legislation in the House. “They should be afforded that same opportunity here in Minnesota.”

Marijuana would be dispensed by a pharmacist employed by the manufacturer who would counsel patients on options. Pharmacists would consult guidance from the state health commissioner about forms and dosages that are best suited to conditions.

Earlier this month, the House and Senate passed different bills for medical marijuana, with the Senate bill allowing more patients access to marijuana in more forms. The bill voted on Friday was the result of negotiations in a conference committee involving House and Senate members, with input from Dayton.


But the final bill is far too restrictive, argued Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, who blamed Dayton for bowing to the concerns of law enforcement groups. When another senator on Friday praised Dayton’s courage in dealing with the controversial issue this spring, Petersen offered a vigorous objection.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Petersen said. “The reason we’re in this position is because the governor has been completely unwilling to engage in an intellectually honest, meaningful, good-faith conversation about this issue.”

The final compromise agreement differs from the earlier Senate bill in not making marijuana available to most patients with a diagnosis of intractable pain - a large patient group that was not included in legislation passed earlier this month by the House. Critics have questioned whether letting pain patients access marijuana effectively provides legal cover for recreational use.

About 5,000 to 7,000 patients are expected to obtain medical marijuana each month - a smaller number than the more than 35,000 who might have participated under the Senate’s bill. It’s unclear whether such a small program is economically viable for manufacturers, Petersen argued Thursday during a conference committee meeting.

He voted against the final bill, after voting in favor of the original Senate proposal.

The bill requires the health commissioner to register two in-state manufacturers to produce medical marijuana within the state by Dec. 1, 2014. If the commissioner determines that no manufacturer exists for the program, the verdict is subject to review by the Ramsey County District Court.

Manufacturers are required to begin supplying medical marijuana to patients by July 1, 2015. If a manufacturer cannot meet the deadline, the commissioner can extend the deadline by six months.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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