State senators revived a stalled proposal legalizing medical marijuana Thursday, in response to chiding from Gov. Mark Dayton that legislators were avoiding the controversial issue.
“We had been reticent to move forward in light of the governor’s concerns and objections,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, the lead sponsor of the proposal in the Senate. But earlier this week, Dayton — who has been the subject of withering criticism from medical marijuana activists — suggested that lawmakers have “hidden behind their desks” on the issue.
“We took him up on the invitation,” said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.
Dayton has not been willing to support wide-ranging legalization for other medical uses, but he suggested a possible compromise in the form of state-funded research into a cannabis-based oil shown to relieve epileptic seizures in children. That’s put him at odds with a well-organized group of medical marijuana advocates, both adult users and parents of epileptic children, who say studies don’t go far enough and have hit back in a series of emotional news conferences and two TV commercials that called out the governor by name.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee reviewed the wider medical marijuana proposal on Thursday. The panel didn’t vote, but the committee chairman said members would when legislators return from a 12-day holiday break that starts Friday. Dibble said he believes he has the votes to clear committees and to pass the full Senate; the bill’s House sponsor has also said she believes there’s enough votes to pass in that chamber, although the House’s DFL leaders have been reluctant to take up the issue.
Dibble’s proposal would allow patients diagnosed with cancer, glaucoma, HIV and a range of chronic diseases to obtain a medical marijuana license. Patients would be able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis that they could administer through a variety of methods, including smoking.
The bill would also authorize a network of dispensary-style businesses, which would be regulated by the Minnesota Department of Health. Users would not be allowed to grow their own marijuana for medical use.
Two of Dayton’s Cabinet officers told senators that the proposal is a bad idea. Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, who is also a pediatrician, said the bill creates “a risky shortcut for a substance of variable quality and strength.” Citing differing views within the medical community, Ehlinger said legalizing medical marijuana would put many doctors in a tough spot.
“There’s lots of anecdotal evidence, but the scientific evidence is not there in terms of prescribing marijuana to patients,” Ehlinger said.
But Jacob Mirman, a St. Louis Park doctor, said practitioners who believe there are benefits to medical marijuana are already in a tough spot. Mirman said he has seen marijuana provide relief to his patients, mentioning a patient with multiple sclerosis who has found smoking marijuana relieved severe muscle spasms.
Illegal vs. unethical
“What am I supposed to tell him? It’s illegal to prescribe, but it’s unethical to not prescribe what will help him most,” Mirman said. He said he considers a wide range of substances, including Tylenol, Prozac, liquor and tobacco, to be more harmful than marijuana if used improperly.
The Senate panel also heard from parents of children with severe epilepsy, and adult users who admitted to breaking state law in order to obtain marijuana to relieve pain or nausea.
The medical marijuana proposal scrambles the normal partisan alignments at the Capitol, with DFLers and Republicans on both sides of the issue.
“I don’t think this is a tenable situation to tell doctors they can’t talk about this and to tell patients they can’t use it,” said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, one of the Senate’s most liberal members. But Dayton’s human services commissioner, Lucinda Jesson, raised particular concerns about adolescent use and about studies that have shown a link between marijuana use and mental illness.
“I have great concerns about increasing the availability of marijuana in our state,” Jesson said. “Marijuana is addictive. I just want to put that on the table.”