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Thousands of Minnesotans with cancer, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy and other conditions would be able to legally treat their symptoms with marijuana under a legislative deal struck Thursday.
The proposal will make Minnesota the 22nd U.S. state to grant some legal level of access to the drug for medicinal purposes, but also will be the most restrictive marijuana law in the country. Minnesota will be the only medical marijuana state that would forbid smoking as a form of treatment and that would bar access to the drug in plant form.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who opposed legalization of medical marijuana for much of the session, pledged to sign the bill into law.
Under the compromise negotiated between the House and Senate, an estimated 5,000 patients could begin using the drug by July 1, 2015, picking up their supply at any one of eight distribution sites across the state.
“This means the world to my family,” said Angie Weaver, a Hibbing mother whose 8-year-old daughter, Amelia, suffers from a severe form of epilepsy that causes 30 to 50 seizures a day. “This is going to change my daughter’s life, and the lives of thousands of Minnesotans.”
Medical marijuana has traveled a tortuous path to legality. Stalling out midsession in the face of fierce opposition by Dayton and law enforcement, the issue gained new life in recent weeks but nearly stumbled when the House and Senate developed wildly different plans and seemed unable to reach agreement.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored the Senate bill, ultimately was forced to abandon his more wide-ranging proposal, which would have created a network of 55 dispensaries statewide and allowed treatment for a broader range of ailments that included intractable pain. That plan also would have allowed access to the plant itself, although not to be smoked.
“To be sure, there may be some folks who will not get what they need with this proposal,” Dibble said Thursday.
Deal on number of centers
In negotiations with Dibble and the administration, Rep. Carly Melin, whose bill would have allowed only a single distributor and two satellite sites, agreed to allow eight sites and a slightly broader list of ailments that include patients with terminal illnesses.
To obtain the drug, patients will need to be certified as eligible by a doctor, physician assistant or advanced practice nurse. They will get the drug in liquid, pill or by vaporized delivery method. The state Department of Health will oversee manufacture of the drug at two sites and set up a distribution center in each of the state’s congressional districts. Private contractors will bid for the manufacture and distribution.
John Kingrey, chief lobbyist for the Minnesota County Attorneys Association and adamant opponent of the Senate version, signed off on the compromise.
“It’s consistent with what we laid out,” Kingrey said. Law enforcement groups were particularly insistent that marijuana in smokable form remain illegal and that distribution be tightly limited.
The Minnesota Medical Association released a statement that stopped short of support, saying only that it would not oppose the bill. “It may be the narrowest interpretation of medical marijuana in the country,” said Dr. Dave Thorson, the group’s board chairman.
The full list of conditions eligible for access to the drug are: Cancer associated with severe or chronic pain, nausea or severe vomiting, or severe wasting; glaucoma; HIV/AIDS; Tourette’s syndrome; ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease); seizure-inducing epilepsy; severe and persistent muscle spasms brought on by multiple sclerosis; Crohn’s disease, and terminal illness with a life expectancy of less than a year or that causes severe pain, nausea, severe vomiting or wasting.
Left out of that equation are a wider group of chronic pain sufferers, as well as people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Those conditions were included in Dibble’s original proposal.
“It’s hard to celebrate when people we’ve become really close to as a result of lobbying for this bill are being left out by this compromise,” said Angela Garin of St. Paul, whose 5-year-old son Paxton suffers from severe and frequent seizures. State Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, a vocal medical marijuana advocate, called the compromise too limited and said he would vote against it.
Under the legislation, the health commissioner has the authority to add additional medical conditions to the eligibility list in the future.
The terms of treatment are similar to those in the House version. Patients would be enrolled in a patient registry supervised by the state Department of Health. Their health care provider would have to provide ongoing reports to the state on the patient’s health status and condition for what is technically being called “observational research.”
“My goal is to keep it safe and then see what we can learn,” state Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said. “That’s what our patient registry will do. Are we finding some things where it is causing some problems? Are we finding areas where it’s actually seeming to bring some benefits?”
‘Schedule 1’ drug status
Little medical research on the efficacy of marijuana as a treatment for illness exists because the federal government categorizes it as a “Schedule 1” drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
Registered patients will pay a $200 annual fee to help cover program costs, or $50 for those on Social Security disability or enrolled in medical assistance or MinnesotaCare. Participants found guilty of transferring medical marijuana to anyone who is not a registered patient could be fined up to $3,000.
The budget office estimates the program would cost the state about $5 million to operate for its first three years.
In a statement to the press, Dayton praised the efforts of the group of parents of ill children who want to treat their kids’ seizures with marijuana-based compounds. Earlier in the legislative session, Dayton angered many of those same parents with his firm insistence that law enforcement groups sign off on any medical marijuana law.
The Senate and House could vote on the compromise as early as Friday. Passage is all but certain, with the earlier proposals winning wide bipartisan support in both chambers.
Dayton said Thursday his administration “will do everything possible to implement it as swiftly and successfully as is possible.”