On a bipartisan 86-39 vote, the Minnesota House on Friday decided that Minnesota should become the 22nd U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana.
"This is the kind of legislation that we pass out of compassion," Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, the chief House sponsor.
The House measure sets up a medical marijuana distribution system with strict limits on who can access the drug, where they obtain it and how they can use it. Supporters blocked numerous attempts to broaden the proposal, which they carefully tailored to maintain support from law enforcement groups and the state’s medical establishment.
The House and Senate will now work together to find a compromise measure.
In an overwhelming 28-97 vote, the House turned back an expansive version more like the one Senate passed earlier this week. The Senate gave bipartisan approval to a measure which authorizes several dozen grow and distribution sites, a wider list of qualifying medical conditions, and allows the drug to be vaporized in leaf form.
“I know some of you wish this bill would include more qualifying conditions or would be more expansive, and frankly so do I,” said Melin. “But it’s important we do not shut down an opportunity for thousands of Minnesotans, for something that will not become law this session.”
The strong House vote against a broader version makes likely the Legislature, in the final measure, will pass something limited in a form Gov. Mark Dayton can sign.
"If the Legislature passes the House's current language, I will sign it into law," he said following the House vote.
On the House floor the debate over the measure was emotional and free of the rancor that often accompanies controversial issues. Instead, a bipartisan cohort of lawmakers who stand on both side of the issue tearfully told personal stories of illness, pain and struggle that brought tears to speakers and listeners.
"I feel like I've been crying all day long, hearing the stories,” said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater. But, she said, she feared the measure could harm the people it was designed to help.
Families of those who hope to be helped if the bill becomes law lined the House gallery Friday and watched the five-hour debate.
Neither the House nor Senate proposals allow marijuana to be smoked; the House version allows vaporizing, but only in pill or oil form.
The expansive Senate version lacks support from groups representing police and prosecutors, as well as medical professionals. Earlier this week, the Minnesota Medical Association announced its support for the current House proposal.
In a letter to Melin, the MMA called the Senate alternative "overly broad in scope." During debate, House members discussed whether law enforcement groups supported potential changes to the measure.
That riled some representatives.
"We should not allow our medical and scientific decisions to be made by law enforcement," Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said.
Holding on to that support was key to winning over Dayton, who will make the final call if a medical marijuana bill gets to his desk. The Democratic governor has been skeptical of a wide-ranging bill, but open to a more limited approach if it's backed by law enforcement and medical groups.
The Legislature passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in 2009, but then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it.
See the moment-by-moment live blog of the House debate below: