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."
Lawmakers have been gone from the Capitol for months, and return on Tuesday with all the politics and policy they left behind last year.
But in the House, they started the session with some bipartisan work.
The House unanimously passed $20 million bill to help low income Minnesotans with heating bills. With another week of subzero temperatures in the forecast and the region still gripped by a propane shortage, the measure is backed by the leadership of both parties and the governor.
"When we get hotline calls, people are calling in fear and desperation," Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman told members of the House Ways and Means Committee at an informational meeting Tuesday morning.
The measure will particularly aid those who have been struggling with high propane bills in Minnesota's particularly cold winter. After 45 minutes of debate, the measure to shift funds out of the general fund and into the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has said the heating assistance bill will likely be the first measure on the governor's desk this session. Senate spokesman Amos Briggs said the Senate will act "quickly and urgently" to complete the legislative work on the bill.
Bakk told Senate members on Tuesday that the Senate may act on that bill on Monday.
Bakk said the $20 million House bill the House passed does not match with a memo he has from Gov. Mark Dayton, which said $17 million is needed.
Bakk said the earliest date he saw for the emergency fund run out of money was March 1, which is Saturday, when state employees won’t be sending out checks.
“Even if it is March 1, getting the bill to the governor March 3 is, I believe, plenty timely,” he said.
Given the accelerated timeline, Dayton will likely be able to sign that $20 million measure into law by next week.
The House and Senate also appointed, or re-appointed, members to deal with bicameral negotiations on a bill to hike the minimum wage.
Last year, the all Democratic Capitol failed to pass any minimum wage increase, despite the fact that DFL leaders said it was a priority, when the House and Senate could not agree on an increase.
This year advocates, who will hold a large rally at 4 p.m. in the Capitol today, are pushing to raise the wage from one of the nation's lowest -- $6.15 an hour -- to one of the nation's highest -- $9.50 an hour by 2015.
Sen. Chris Eaton, who is sponsoring the minimum wage measure in the Senate, said the Senate plans extensive hearings on the measure before it brings it up for votes.
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she thinks it is time to pass the measure.
“Minnesotans have talked about that minimum wage all summer and fall,” Murphy said. “I think the Senate is listening to them and I think we’re going to be able to make the action complete this year.”
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The Department of Human Services is looking for new members for its Medicaid Citizens' Advisory Committee.
The committee is designed to give low-income Minnesotans a voice in DHS's decision making process. The committee advises the state about health care, policies and new technology, evaluates department programs and makes recommendations to the state. The committee meets quarterly and new members would be appointed for the years 2014 and 2015.
The DHS gives preference to Medical Assistance clients who might want to serve on the committee, but members of consumer groups, health care professionals and other interested Minnesotans. Anyone interested in applying for a seat on the committee should submit a letter of interest to: Sean Barrett, federal relations, health care administration, Minnesota Department of Human Services, P.O. Box 64983
St. Paul, MN 55164-0983. Applicants can also email letters to firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications will be accepted until the end of the business day on Monday, Feb. 24. Call 651-431-2298 for more information.