Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing that the state fund clinical trials at Mayo Clinic of cannabis-based medications for children with severe forms of epilepsy, as well as a more comprehensive study of medical marijuana.
Several of Dayton's top deputies and his health commissioner met privately on Thursday with medical marijuna advocates. The governor ordered the meeting last week after he met with a group of advocates who showed up at his residence to demonstrate in favor of a proposal at the Capitol to legalize medical marijuana.
Dayton's new proposal would not make medical marijuana legal in Minnesota. His chief of staff, Jamie Tincher, said in a written statement the administration is looking for ideas that could pass during the current legislative session. The proposal would provide $2.2 million in state funds for medical marijuana research, with a main focus on possible health benefits of cannabidiol, or CBD, a marijuana compound that many parents of children with severe forms of epilepsy say is effective in reducing seizures.
"It is my understanding that key stakeholders in the law enforcement and medical communities _ including the Mayo Clinic _ would support and advocate for the approach we are considering," Tincher said. Dayton has repeatedly cited concerns from law enforcement and medical groups for his own hesitation to embrace medical marijuana, which is legal in 20 states.
State Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said the larger study would analyze the benefits, costs and risks of medical marijuana.
Dayton administration officials met with four patients who want access to medical marijuana and with Heather Azzi, who leads the pro-medical marijuana group Minnesotans for Compassionate Care. Azzi said Friday that her group supports further research, but has concerns about how it would work in practice.
Azzi said she appreciates the administration's efforts "but nothing here gets medical marijuana into the hands of people who need it," she said.
Dayton's proposal would be separate from the bill to legalize medical marijuana. Azzi said administration officials assured her Dayton is not set on vetoing that bill if it gets to his desk, and won't decide until it does. But top legislative leaders in recent days have been skeptical of the bill's chances this year.
Tincher said that discussions between the administration and groups interested in the issue would continue next week.
Reports of children and teenagers being poisoned by e-cigarette fluid rose sharply in 2013 compared to the previous year, according to the Minnesota Poison Control System.
The liquid, known as e-cigarette juice, is used to fuel tobacco vaporizers. A news release from the Minnesota Department of Health Tuesday said that the vials of liquid can contain nicotine levels fatal to children, and that kids sometimes mistake them for candy or food.
In 2012, the poison center received five reports of poisonings among people under 20 related to the cigarette alternative. In 2013, that number jumped to 50. Calls to the poison center have included reports of people swallowing or inhaling e-cigarette juice, getting it in eyes or on skin.
Several calls to the center in 2013 involved infants who swallowed e-juice, although the department said no children were hospitalized or seriously injured last year by exposure to e-juice.
The department said a fatal dose of nicotine for an adult is between 50 to 60 milligrams, and less for children. E-juice containers typically contain 18 to 24 milligrams. Symptoms of nicotine poisoning include nauseau, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures and difficulty breathing.
No state or federal law currently requires manufacturers of e-juice to disclose ingredients or require child-resistant packaging. Bills now moving through the state House and Senate would restrict the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and prohibit their use indoors and in public spaces under Minnesota's Freedom to Breathe Act. The bills do not directly address the problem of children being poisoned by e-cigarette fluid.
Top legislative leaders from both parties were pessimistic Friday about chances that medical marijuana would be legalized this year, even after Gov. Mark Dayton put new weight behind finding a compromise on the controversial bill.
A day earlier, Dayton abruptly shifted on the issue after a two hour meeting with medical marijuana advocates. After downplaying the proposal’s chances Thursday morning, Dayton instructed his chief of staff and health commissioner to find a compromise on Thursday afternoon.
But at a Friday news briefing, House Majority Leader Erin Murphy declared it “probably not possible to get this conversation done yet this session.” House Speaker Paul Thissen and Deputy Senate Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, both DFLers from Minneapolis, echoed her pessimism.
“There may be a more fruitful discussion that happens after this session into next year, that will yield a better outcome on this issue for Minnesotans,” said Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.
While law enforcement objections to the proposal have been widely aired, Murphy said she wanted to see more input from the medical community.
Police and sheriffs have long argued that legalizing marijuana for patients who get a doctor’s prescription would make illegal uses of the drug harder to control, and open the door to full-scale legalization.
The issue has scrambled partisan lines at the Capitol, with both Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the debate.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said Friday he thinks marijuana could be beneficial for some patients; but said the lack of consensus in the medical community “could put pharmacists and medical professionals in tough positions.”
Dayton instructed a handful of top staffers and Health commissioner to meet with advocates and other concerned groups to see if there’s still room for compromise.
Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said Friday that the governor’s chief of staff, Jamie Tincher, is working on setting up those meetings.
Photo: Medical marijuana advocates demonstrate outside Gov. Mark Dayton's residence in St. Paul. Souce: Star Tribune.
Medical marijuana sponsors in the House offered opponents a compromise: no smoking.
Law enforcement negotiators responded: no thank you.
The result is a stalemate that has stalled the bill, says Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, who sponsored the bill that would make Minnesota the 21st state to legalize medical marijuana. She is calling on the governor to break the deadlock.
Over the weekend, Melin said she offered a series of changes to the bill to satisfy the major objections law enforcement groups have had to the legislation. She offered to allow doctors to prescribe cannabis as a pill, liquid or vapor. But anyone caught smoking medical marijuana would face penalties.
Melin's also offered to strip out provisions that would allow patients to grow up to six plants in their own homes, and to narrow the language to allay concerns that people could fudge their way into a marijuana prescription -- changing "severe and debilitating pain" to "intractable pain."
Despite the changes, law enforcement remained strongly opposed to the bill, pending more in-depth research into marijuana's medicinal properties. John Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said he believes Melin and other supporters are sincere in their desire to help sick and dying Minnesotans, but the dangers of drugs may still outweigh the potential benefits.
"We are concerned that medical marijuana will make its way into the hands of Minnesota teens," Kingrey said.
Philosophically, he said, the gulf between the two sides is probably too wide to find a compromise during this year's brief session.
"Given the short session and the technical aspects of the bill, I just don't think there's time" to reach a consensus, he said.
Melin asked the House Government Operations Committee to postpone a scheduled Tuesday morning hearing on the legislation and appealed to the governor to mediate.
In a statement, she said: "Governor Dayton has been consistent that his support of a medical marijuana bill is contingent on support from law enforcement. I have attempted to compromise with law enforcement over the past few months and offered several major concessions, but they have been unwilling to accept a proposal that would allow Minnesota to join 20 other states in permitting patients safe, regulated, and legal access to medical marijuana. I will continue to stand with Minnesotans who support the Compassionate Care Act and remain hopeful we can make progress, but right now we are at a stalemate with law enforcement and I don't see a path forward until the governor changes his position."
The medical marijuana bill cleared the House Health and Human Services Policy committee by a voice vote last week.
Medical marijuana faces a tough fight in the Minnesota Legislature, House Speaker Paul Thissen warned Friday.
Legislation that would make Minnesota the 21st state to legalize medical marijuana cleared one committee this week and heads to Government Operations next Tuesday. The bill would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana and allow patients to either pick up their prescriptions at a licensed marijuana dispensary or grow their own under lock and key.
But in its current form, the bill is unlikely to make it to the House floor, Thissen said. State law enforcement associations strongly oppose the bill in its current form, and Gov. Mark Dayton does not want to sign off on a law without law enforcement support.
"What I want to get to is a bill that both law enforcement and the advocates of medical marijuana can support," Thissen told reporters Friday. "Until we get that bill, I don’t see a bill passing out of the House floor."
Law enforcement groups worry that medical marijuana will make it into the wrong hands -- particularly teens and people seeking marijuana more for its recreational effects than any therapeutic benefits.
The medical marijuana debate pits law enforcement against patients and families seeking the drug to treat a host of debilitating conditions. The first hearing drew parents seeking cannabis treatment for young children with seizure disorders, a mother who scored marijuana to ease the final months of her daughter's battle with cancer, and patients seeking the drug for conditions ranging from glaucoma to muscular dystrophy.
It might be possible, Thissen said, to hammer out a compromise that both sides can live with.
"We’ve been sitting down with law enforcement folks and the advocates a number of times and there has been some progress and movement together," Thissen said. "It wouldn’t be as broad, obviously, as the bill that got its hearing last week in the committee, but I think we are making progress and will continue to work at that."
The bill is not yet scheduled for a hearing in the Senate.
"The negotiations are on to see if we can get law enforcement involved," Senate Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Hayden told reporters. "The governor’s been pretty clear from the very beginning that he wasn’t going to sign a bill that law enforcement didn’t approve. I think that those negotiations are ongoing."
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