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Minnesota might see a law to legalize medical marijuana this year, but not in a form that would allow anyone to smoke the drug.
A Senate panel on Friday struck smoking from its medical marijuana bill, meaning patients who qualify for access to the drug would have to use a vaporizer, or ingest it in pill or oil form. The more restrictive House bill also prohibits smoking as a delivery method, leaving little chance that any final version of the measure would allow it.
Sen. Scott Dibble, the bill's chief sponsor, acknowledged that some concessions would have to be made to preserve any chance of legalizing medical marijuana.
"We are trying to respond to concerns," the Minneapolis DFLer said Friday. "I myself am not thrilled with these changes, but I am to the extent that it makes more people comfortable. I think we are protecting the main principles and values we're trying to accomplish, which is getting more people access on a limited and restricted basis to something that will help them."
The prospect of people being allowed to legally smoke marijuana has brought major objections from law enforcement groups, who have been the chief obstacles at the Capitol to a sweeping medical marijuana law.
"We don't believe that smoking marijuana provides a medicinal value," said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. "We believe any value comes with certain medicinal qualities of the plant itself that can be extracted without actually having to burn it."
Gov. Mark Dayton has said consistently that he would follow the lead of law enforcement if a medical marijuana bill gets to his desk. He has proposed state-backed research into the medicinal qualities of marijuana as preferable to the wider legalization offered in the Senate bill. The House proposal, which surfaced Thursday, comes closer, establishing clinical trials in which access to marijuana would be closely supervised for those with certain medical conditions.
Some lawmakers criticized the way in which medical marijuana proposals are being reshaped to address the concerns of critics.
"Political opinions about how a medicine is administered, I find very interesting," said state Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who is also a city prosecutor.
In addition to pill or oil form, both the House and Senate versions of the medical marijuana bill would allow the drug to be consumed with a vaporizer. Here's how Dibble described such devices: "Vaporizing is putting it in a little machine, heating it up to the point that doesn't quite allow it to combust but allows it to release the compounds that are beneficial to ingest in that form." He said vaporizing delivers "almost the identical benefits" as smoking.
Despite its new prohibition on smoking, Dibble's bill remains much broader than its House counterpart. It would authorize up to 55 medical marijuana dispensaries around the state, include a wider list of patients eligible for the drug, and would not require that it be administered in the presence of a doctor.
Heather Azzi, political director for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, said if Minnesota approves legalization but bars patients from smoking, it would be the only one among the 22 states that allow medical marijuana to enforce such a prohibition.
Both versions of the bill are moving quickly at the Capitol. Both cleared committee votes on Friday, and votes by the full House and Senate are possible as early as next week.