Medical marijuana bill advanced by Senate committee
ST. PAUL - The long and winding road for medical marijuana in Minnesota continued Friday as a Senate health committee voted in support of a legalization bill.
Advancing on a 7-3 vote, the bill received bipartisan support and opposition, as well as amendments intended to appease critics.
The ultimate fate of the legislation remains in question, although it is expected to be taken up by two more Senate committees next week.
Due to concerns voiced by law enforcement groups and physicians, Gov. Mark Dayton last month proposed more research into medical marijuana rather than giving patients access to the drug. But patient advocates argued that studies alone won’t help — in part because they can’t move forward easily due to federal regulations.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Friday he expects medical marijuana legislation to get a floor vote in the Senate this session, although he still hopes for a bill that won’t be opposed by law enforcement groups.
“I have asked the authors to try and work with law enforcement and get it — mitigate their concerns to the extent that we can, knowing that we’re probably not going to be able to mitigate all of them,” Bakk said. “But to the extent we can get it in a position where law enforcement might be neutral is kind of an ideal situation.”
Whether that’s possible is unclear, Bakk added.
The bill from Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, would permit patients with certain health conditions up to 2½ ounces of usable cannabis from a state-licensed dispensary. Doctors would have to certify that a patient might benefit.
The state Health Department would issue identification cards to qualifying patients. Dibble’s bill would let patients smoke marijuana, whereas the sponsor of similar legislation in the state House offered to not allow smoking in her version as a compromise.
“What we’re hoping to achieve is allowing seriously ill patients to access medical marijuana … under a very limited basis, under a fairly strict regiment,” Dibble said at the outset of Friday’s hearing.
The committee approved a lengthy amendment put forth by Dibble to improve standards for those who would operate dispensaries and provide more regulatory authority to the health commissioner. The bill also was amended to include a study on the evidence for medical marijuana, but only after a lengthy debate.
Sen. Julie Rosen, a Republican from Fairmont, put forth the amendment as a way to wipe out the contents of Dibble’s bill. Rosen said more studies about the pros and cons of medical marijuana are needed to address concerns that have been voiced not only by Dayton and law enforcement groups but also addiction treatment professionals.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, supported the change, saying moving legislation without such data would create a “wild west of medicine.”
Dibble called the description an “overstatement,” saying there is a lot of anecdotal evidence in support of usage. Federal regulations surrounding marijuana have prevented studies on the medicinal possibilities, Dibble said, adding that patients need help now and can’t wait for more research.
Dr. Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist from the University of Arizona College of Medicine, said that tough rules in her state have helped make sure that medical marijuana in Arizona “does not veer into a recreational program.”
“The sky hasn’t fallen in the 20 states that have these laws on the books,” Sisley told the committee.
Rather than gutting Dibble’s bill, the committee ultimately adopted a version of Rosen’s study amendment that simply tacked it onto the legislation. In its final form, Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, joined six Democratic-Farmer-Labor members in voting to support the bill.
Sen. Chris Eaton, a DFLer from Brooklyn Center, joined Nelson and Rosen in voting against the legislation saying: “There’s a reason we have an FDA that seriously studies drugs before we prescribe them.”
Friday’s hearing continued a session from two weeks ago when Dayton’s health commissioner testified in opposition to the bill. At the time, the commissioner of human services raised concerns about the impact of medical marijuana legislation on addiction rates and people with mental health conditions.
Patient advocates, however, said they were willing to live with any risks from medical marijuana because they have few other treatment options. In some cases, standard medical treatments are much more risky, they contend.
In March, a House health committee passed a medical marijuana bill that subsequently bogged down in negotiations with law enforcement officials. After meeting with patient advocates last month, Dayton directed his health commissioner to try to find a compromise, but a deal couldn’t be reached.
In one of his last public comments on the subject, Dayton told reporters earlier this month that progress on the issue was up to legislators who had “hidden behind their desks for the whole session while I’ve taken this on.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.