Medical marijuana on verge of Minn. law; it will be strictest in U.S.

  • Article by: PATRICK CONDON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 16, 2014 - 5:12 AM

The deal paves the way for most restrictive such law in the U.S., aimed at helping the very ill.

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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.

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