The proposal to legalize medical marijuana rose from political limbo at the Capitol on Friday, putting a controversial issue on a sudden fast track in the Minnesota Senate.
In a 7-3 bipartisan vote, legislators moved to pass a bill that would allow doctor-monitored access to marijuana for patients diagnosed with cancer and other maladies. The panel vote gives new life to a bill that’s been stalled for nearly a month and which still faces opposition from Gov. Mark Dayton.
“This is a really solid, responsible bill,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, sponsor of the proposal that would allow up to 55 medical marijuana shops throughout Minnesota. “Public opinion is shifting on this issue, and I believe legislative support is shifting in our favor.”
After languishing for most of the session, the proposal now is scheduled to go through two more committees by Tuesday. A companion bill in the House cleared one committee in March, but has stalled since then. Even Dibble, buoyed by Friday’s vote, held back from promising the bill could come to a full floor vote before the legislative session ends next month.
Opponents remained firm, saying there is too little scientific evidence about the curative powers of marijuana.
“This is premature,” said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, one of two Republicans and one Democrat on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee to vote against the bill. “We do not know what would be effective. We don’t even know what a consistent dose is. This is the Wild West of medicine.”
Twenty states and the District of Columbia allow some legal access to marijuana for medicinal uses.
Dibble’s proposal would have the plants professionally grown and the product distributed under strict oversight by the Minnesota Department of Health. A medical doctor or doctor of osteopathy would have to issue a prescription and only for 2.5 ounces at a time. The bill would not, as some earlier bills did, allow patients to grow and harvest their own marijuana.
The drug would be distributed at what the bill calls “alternative treatment centers.” Dibble said supporters decided against the more common term “dispensary,” because they believe it has negative connotations from states where medical marijuana is more loosely regulated. The centers would be sprinkled across the state, guided by population. Hennepin County could get three, while Ramsey, Dakota, Anoka and St. Louis counties would each get two. Another 44 counties, including the rest of the metro area, would each have one. The remaining 38 counties, all with populations below 20,000, would get none.
Eligible medical conditions would include cancer, AIDS and HIV, glaucoma, hepatitis C, Tourette’s syndrome, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), post-traumatic stress disorder, illnesses that cause severe, chronic pain or severe nausea, diseases like multiple sclerosis that cause muscle spasms, and forms of epilepsy that produce serious and frequent seizures.
The Senate proposal would allow patients to smoke their marijuana, although they would be subject to all the restrictions of the state’s indoor smoking ban. The House bill would allow medical marijuana to be administered only through injection or orally.
Supporters have struggled to win over Dayton, who says he sympathizes with the plight of patients but is unwilling to ignore the concerns of law enforcement and much of the medical community. His own health commissioner has testified against legalization, saying there is insufficient evidence of consistent results.
The governor has instead called for state-funded research into medical marijuana at the Mayo Clinic. Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, on Friday offered an amendment that would have replaced Dibble’s bill with such a research study. The committee rejected it 7-3.
Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Arizona — a state where medical marijuana is legal — said government research into medical marijuana has been hampered by federal laws that define the drug as an illegal narcotic. She called the federal hurdles “brutal” and said “the notion that this study could be implemented in the next few years is fantasy.”
Voting against the bill on the Senate health committee were Nelson, Rosen and Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center. Backing the bill were DFL Sens. Kathy Sheran of Mankato, Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis, John Marty of Roseville, Melissa Wiklund of Bloomington, John Hoffman of Champlin and Tony Lourey of Kerrick, along with Republican Michelle Benson of Ham Lake. Benson is also a GOP candidate for lieutenant governor this year.