Minnesota would become the 22nd U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana, but with some of the nation’s tightest limits on access under a bill approved Friday by the state House.

The measure’s strict regulatory controls helped rack up a broadly bipartisan vote of 86 to 39, with only two DFLers voting no. The final vote came after a long, often personal and sometimes emotional floor debate that saw many lawmakers crying as they shared stories of their own health struggles or the suffering of loved ones.

Supporters of the measure blocked numerous attempts to broaden access to marijuana, which they had carefully limited to gain support from law enforcement groups and the state’s medical establishment.

Such limits may also be pivotal to winning over DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who has been reluctant to back the proposal.

Dayton said Friday in a letter to House and Senate bill sponsors that “If the Legislature passes the House’s current language, I will sign it into law.” He said he does not support the broader access in the Senate alternative.

Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, the chief House sponsor, had initially called for broader access to the drug, but scaled back her bill in a compromise that resulted in Friday’s floor vote.

“I know some of you wish this bill would include more qualifying conditions or would be more expansive, and frankly so do I,” Melin said. “But it’s important we do not shut down an opportunity for thousands of Minnesotans for something that will not become law this session.”

House members remained torn by a proposal that has divided them throughout the session. Some complained that Melin’s proposal leaves out too many prospective patients, while others said they feared passage would force a momentous cultural change on a state that may not be ready.

“We’re not talking about changing the state bird here,” said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth. “We’re talking about huge, significant policy for the state of Minnesota that’s going to impact not just people who participate, but impact every Minnesotan.”

In a five-hour debate that was impassioned but largely free of rancor, many legislators brought their own personal stories to the fore.

“I feel like I’ve been crying all day, hearing stories,” said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo, who recounted her own battle with cancer but said she still was not ready to vote for legalization.

Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, talked about his neighbor’s 2-year-old daughter, who suffers from a disorder that causes frequent seizures. “As a parent of young kids, seeing a 2-year-old who could barely keep her eyes open because of the side effects of the medication she was on had a profound effect on me,” Freiberg said. Another DFL representative, Rep. Jason Isaacson of Shoreview, spoke of his own battles with substance abuse as a younger man but said he still supports the proposal.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, choked up as he explained how his multiple sclerosis would make him eligible for the drug — but said he only abandoned his opposition to medical marijuana after discussing it with families of children with severe seizures who want to treat them with cannabis oil.

A new registry

The House plan would have the state Department of Health create and supervise a patient registry program for which an estimated 5,045 Minnesotans would be eligible. Participants would be part of an observational research study that would give them access to marijuana starting July 1, 2015.

Eligible conditions would include cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Tourette’s syndrome, ALS, seizures caused by epilepsy, muscle spasms brought on by multiple sclerosis, and Crohn’s disease. Doctors would record treatment plans and outcomes, and submit data to the state health department.

Marijuana would be grown by a single, state-approved manufacturer and distributed at no more than three sites. Patients could use the drug in liquid or pill form, either by ingesting it or using a vaporizer to deliver liquid cannabis. The state health commissioner would be authorized at a later point to add new drug delivery methods and qualifying medical conditions, although the Legislature could override those decisions.

Senate OK’d broader version

Earlier this week the Senate approved a more sweeping proposal that would have made medical marijuana available for a wide number of ailments and created a statewide network of 55 dispensaries. Patients under that plan would not be as closely monitored by doctors and could obtain up to 2.5 ounces of the drug at regular intervals. Unlike the House plan, it would allow the marijuana leaf itself to be vaporized — a primary point of opposition for law enforcement groups.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, tried at one point to bring the House plan more in line with the Senate’s. “It helps more people,” he said of the Senate plan. The attempt was overwhelmingly rejected.

With House passage, the proposal goes back to the Senate, which could vote to accept the more limited proposal. If they reject it, a House-Senate conference committee would work on a compromise.

Law enforcement’s take

The House plan has gained the support of the Minnesota Medical Association, though the Minnesota Nurses Association supports the broader Senate proposal. Law enforcement lobbyists called the House plan acceptable.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said John Kingrey, a lobbyist for Minnesota prosecutors. He said he’s spoken to about a dozen elected prosecutors about the House proposal and received entirely positive feedback.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said the more limited route is the only way to bring medical marijuana to dozens of patients and their families who traveled to the Capitol dozens of times to lobby for it. Many of those families watched the lengthy debate from the House gallery, and a number of House members directed comments to them during the debate.

As legislators began voting and the board filled up with green lights from both parties, advocates in the gallery gasped, and uttered cries of “We did it!”

Patrick McClellan, who has been illegally using marijuana to treat symptoms of his muscular dystrophy, wept as the vote came in.

“Don’t close the door on the patients,” said McClellan, 47, who is on disability.

Martha Schulz of St. Cloud came to represent her niece, Greta, who moved to Colorado with her mother so she could get medical marijuana for her epilepsy. “It makes all of those drives, all of those hours spent in committee meetings worth it,” she said after the vote.

Wiping her eyes, Schulz said: “We need to bring Greta home.”


Staff writers Baird Helgeson and Abby Simons contributed to this report.