The proposal to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota has new life in the state Senate, after Gov. Mark Dayton accused lawmakers of avoiding the issue.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee reviewed the bill Thursday. The committee did not vote, but its chair said she would take up the proposal again later this month when lawmakers return from a nearly two-week holiday break that starts Friday.
The bill would give patients with certain medical conditions access to marijuana as treatment. Dayton has expressed reservations about the proposal, citing conflicting views within the medical community as well as opposition by law enforcement groups. Two of Dayton's cabinet officers testified against the proposal at Thursday's Senate hearing: Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.
But Dayton has also met with patients who use marijuana, and the parents of children with severe epilepsy who want to treat their kids with an oil that contains cannabis extract. He has expressed sympathy, and suggested he might be willing to support state-funded research into the cannabis oil as a possible compromise. Advocates have been reluctant to support research without legalization.
Earlier this week, Dayton chided lawmakers for "hiding behind their desks" on the issue; the bill's Senate sponsor, DFLer Scott Dibble, said that remark motivated him to mount a new push for the bill.
Both Dibble and the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Carly Melin, said they believe the votes are there in the full House and Senate to pass the bill. The Legislature voted in 2009 to legalize medical marijuana, but then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it.
Minnesota would spend an addition $209 million for education, prisons and raises for state-paid home health workers, under a proposal that passed through the state Senate on Tuesday.
“There are many things in here that are desirous,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul.
The 37-27 vote came after a prolonged floor debate in which Republicans repeatedly failed to amend the measure. Republicans have pushed for deeper tax cuts instead of more spending.
“Minnesotans have once again been denied additional tax relief," said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. She called the measure "a disappointing display of misplaced priorities.”
DFL legislators who control both the House and Senate are trying to finish up the spending measures that they are paying for out of the state’s $1.2 billion projected budget surplus for he remainder of the budget cycle. Already, legislators have earmarked about $550 million for business and consumer tax relief and another $150 million for the state’s rainy-day fund.
The Senate proposal includes several provisions with strong bipartisan support, including 5 percent raises for home health workers, which will cost about $80 million.
“We support this,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. “This is something that was neglected in the budget last year.”
The proposal also includes a $2 million-a-year boost to state nursing homes to offset a measure to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour.
An unexpected increase in criminal convictions prompted Democratic legislators to set aside an additional $11 million to pay for the growth in the state prison population and the cost of renting beds from county jails.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections reported that incarcerations were up 8 percent over earlier estimates, which is an average of 513 extra offenders each year.
Law enforcement officials say the increased incarcerations come from a wide range of crimes, including a 23 percent jump in methamphetamine convictions, a 15 percent increase in DWI offenders, a 5 percent increase in criminal sexual conduct convictions. Corrections officials logged a decrease in prisoners for non-methamphetamine drug offenses.
The proposal adds millions in new spending on elementary education, including $8.8 million in early learning scholarships. The proposal sets aside money to bridge the disparity gap for minority students and for teacher evaluations.
Senators also included $3.5 million to ensure that all low-income students have a hot school lunch.
The measure also includes a one-time appropriation of $2.5 million to deal with financial challenges at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
The Senate measure differs from the House, so a special conference committee will try to resolve differences between the two. The measure increases spending by more than $741 million in the next budget cycle, ending in 2017.
Medical marijuana supporters are airing a new ad on Minnesota TV stations that criticizes Gov. Mark Dayton for not supporting a proposal at the Capitol to legalize it.
The ad features a Minnesota mother with a five-year-old son who suffers a rare disorder she said causes him multiple seizures every day. Angela Garin of Inver Grove Heights said her son Paxton's seizures were drastically reduced with exposure to medical marijuana on a trip to Oregon, where the family was able to access it legally.
In the ad, Garin urges viewers to "tell Gov. Dayton to support Paxton and stop blocking access to medical marijuana."
Heather Azzi of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care said the ad was paid for by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates nationwide for medical marijuana legalization. She would not disclose the cost of the ad buy but said it is statewide.
The ad is set to start airing Wednesday night during the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and the Late Show with David Letterman, and then during several morning news and talk shows on Thursday. Azzi said the group is likely to air a second ad starting next week.
A bill to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota has been much discussed at the Capitol this year, but has made little legislative progress. Advocates are planning a news conference outside Dayton's office on Thursday to deliver a petition in support of the bill. Advocates have been particularly critical of Dayton, alleging that in a recent private meeting with medical marijuana supporters that the governor suggested they could buy the drug illegally. Dayton has denied that.
The ad can be viewed here.
While the Minnesota Capitol has been roiled over questions about whether the legalize marijuana for medical uses, the rest of the country has moved on.
According to the Pew Center for People and the Press, a majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana completely, driven by strong support from people born after 1981.
Only two states -- Washington and Colorado -- have leglized buying marijuana. Minnesota has not explored full legalization. According to a Star Tribune poll early this year, a slim majority of Minnesotans support legalizing pot's medical use but 63 percent oppose full legalization.
Explore the changing attitudes about pot in Pew's slideshow on the issue below.
A compromise proposal by Gov. Mark Dayton that the state of Minnesota fund research by Mayo Clinic into an oil-based marijuana compound lacks support from advocates for medical use of the drug and their legislative allies and isn't likely to happen this year, the governor said Tuesday.
Dayton's chief of staff, commissioner of health and a senior policy adviser met last week with a group of medical marijuana activists who want the drug legalized for medical purposes in Minnesota. That followed an earlier meeting between the governor himself and a handful of activists who he invited into his residence after they showed up there to demonstrate.
Medical marijuana backers have struggled to build support for full-scale legalization from legislators and Dayton amid concerns from law enforcement and medical groups. Dayton, who has said he's sympathetic to their plight, offered a compromise: a bill to funnel about $2 million in state funds toward researching cannabidiol, an oil extracted from marijuana and administered in pill form. Many parents of children with severe forms of epilepsy say cannabidiol helps reduce violent seizures.
Dayton said last week such research could pave the way for relaxed state regulation of some forms of marijuana for medical use, and that law enforcement groups didn't oppose such research. But Dayton said Tuesday on WCCO-AM that medical marijuana activists notified his administration they don't support the study. The governor said the lawmakers sponsoring the medical marijuana bill don't support it either.
"Its prospects for this session are slim and none," Dayton said. "We'll work on it next session."
Heather Azzi, director of the pro-medical marijuana group Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, said Dayton's proposal isn't workable because there's no legal way for researchers to have access to marijuana and that any patients who participate would be exposing themselves to legal risk.
"What you need is some legal distribution network, and what the governor proposed does not include that," Azzi said. But she said advocates would like to continue working with the administration to reach a compromise that would satisfy all sides.
Prospects for the existing proposal to legalize medical marijuana are not bright for the current session. Legislative leaders have said in recent days they don't believe there's enough support to pass it this year.