Ignoring opposition from the governor and law enforcement, the Minnesota Senate on Tuesday voted to legalize medical marijuana and make it widely available in statewide dispensaries for a broad range of ailments.
“For God’s sake, if people are suffering and we have the ability to provide a way to alleviate the pain, let’s hear their concern, let’s hear their prayer,” said Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, before the measure passed 48-18.
During the hourslong debate, medical marijuana supporters looked on from the Senate gallery, many holding aloft pictures of children they’d like to receive the drug to reduce seizures brought on by epilepsy.
“They have to pass something this session because the voters will remember if they don’t,” said Jessica Hauser, a Woodbury parent who has sought access to marijuana to help treat her son’s dozens of daily seizures.
The Senate bill is now on a collision course with a much more scaled-back and tightly regulated legalization bill in the House, where members are trying to craft a bill that Gov. Mark Dayton would be willing to sign.
The House version initially called for restricting participation to clinical trials, but the bill’s sponsors have since reframed the use as “observational research.” That eliminates a requirement that all medical marijuana would have to be used in the direct company of a doctor, which critics said could put doctors at risk of federal prosecution.
The Ways and Means Committee approved the House bill early Tuesday and Speaker Paul Thissen said the full House could vote on it as early as Friday.
Thissen said he believes the more modest House bill would win wider support among lawmakers from both parties.
Critics warned Tuesday that legalizing marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, would set Minnesota on a dangerous path.
“I think we’re taking baby steps toward legalizing recreational marijuana,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, a former county sheriff. He noted that the two states that have fully legalized marijuana — Colorado and Washington — started by authorizing medical marijuana. Currently, 21 U.S. states allow some form of marijuana use by patients.
“That’s where my huge concern comes in,” Ingebrigtsen said. The Republican cited opposition to the Senate bill from Dayton’s commissioners of the departments of Health, Human Services and Public Safety.
The Senate proposal would allow up to 55 medical marijuana dispensaries around the state, dubbing them “alternative treatment centers.” Patients would need a doctor’s permission and have to pay a $140 yearly fee to get a medical marijuana card. That would give them access to up to 2.5 ounces of the drug at a time. Each center would pay a $15,000 yearly operating fee to the state.
Qualifying conditions in the Senate proposal are cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, Tourettes syndrome, ALS, seizures brought on by epilepsy, muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a handful of conditions that cause chronic pain. Patients would not be allowed to smoke the drug, but could use a vaporizer or ingest it in pill or oil form.
The House proposal includes some features of the Senate bill but is far more restrictive. The yearly fee for patients would be higher, $200, and the list of qualifying conditions is smaller — both PTSD and chronic pain are excluded. Officials estimate that slightly more than 5,000 Minnesotans would sign up to participate.
Rather than a system of dispensaries, the House plan calls for marijuana to be grown and distributed at a single site under control of the Department of Health. That concerns some medical marijuana supporters in the House.
“My concern is outstate Minnesota,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings. But Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, an opponent of the Senate bill, opposed a move by McNamara to expand the number of distribution sites from one to six.
Ehlinger said that having more than one manufacturer could result in quality control problems. “The product could be different depending where it is grown,” he said.
With major differences between the House and Senate proposals, a final bill would have to be worked out in a conference committee.
Medical marijuana has scrambled the usual partisan alliances at the Capitol, with Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the debate.
“Doctors prescribe highly toxic, highly addictive substances every day,” said Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover. “Nobody has ever died of a marijuana overdose.”
Abby Simons and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this story.