Senate health committee tables medical marijuana proposal
ST. PAUL -- Two days after Gov. Mark Dayton chided lawmakers for “hiding behind their desks” on the medical marijuana issue, a bill to give some patients access to cannabis got its first hearing Thursday in the state Senate.
The Senate’s Committee on Health, Human Services and Housing ultimately tabled the bill without taking a vote. Debate is scheduled to continue after legislators return to the Capitol on April 22 following the Easter-Passover break.
The bill from Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, would permit patients with certain health conditions up to 2½ ounces of usable cannabis from a state-licensed dispensary.
Doctors would have to certify that a patient might benefit. The state Health Department would issue identification cards to qualifying patients.
Dibble’s bill would let patients smoke marijuana, whereas similar legislation proposed in the state House would not allow smoking.
“We’re asking to allow Minnesotans the freedom that citizens of 20 other states and the District of Columbia now have,” Dibble said at Thursday’s committee meeting. “And we’re asking in the name of compassion to have access to something that has made a real difference for the better in their lives.
“The alternative is that they go without, and continue to endure those treatments that are available to them through pharmaceuticals — or operate outside of the law at great personal risk, and in so doing support (a) criminal system,” Dibble said.
A House health committee passed a medical marijuana bill last month, but the legislation bogged down in negotiations with law enforcement officials. To win their support, chief author Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, offered to remove smoking marijuana as an option for patients, but a compromise couldn’t be reached.
Last month, medical marijuana supporters pressured Dayton for action; the governor directed his health commissioner and top advisers to try to find a compromise.
Noting that physicians — and not just police officers — have concerns about giving patients access to marijuana, Dayton announced a plan to fund research into medical marijuana.
But patient advocates say such laws in other states haven’t resulted in more treatment studies. At a news conference Tuesday, Dayton said it’s up to the Legislature to make any legislation happen, commenting: “They’ve hidden behind their desks for the whole session while I’ve taken this on.”
Dibble said Thursday that he viewed the governor’s comment as “a warm embrace of the idea of having an open and fair policy debate.”
Testimony from patients
On Thursday, several patients and family members testified that medical marijuana offers their best chance at relief from painful and debilitating medical conditions.
Jessica Hauser, 36, of Woodbury, said her son Wyatt, who is almost 2 years old, has tried 10 medications and several different diets, but so far has found no help with epilepsy symptoms. The boy suffers about 100 seizures per day, his mother said.
The family has looked into a medical marijuana treatment being offered in Oregon; Wyatt would take cannabis by way of a liquid delivered through an oral syringe, Jessica Hauser said. It could be their last option, since the only medications that Wyatt hasn’t tried offer little hope and involve difficult side effects.
“We don’t want to move, but if this law doesn’t pass we will be forced to leave,” Hauser testified. “We will need to go to a state where we can provide our son with the medication that he needs.”
But Dr. Edward Ehlinger, the state health commissioner, said he opposes Dibble’s bill.
Like patients, doctors want to know if chemical compounds in the marijuana plant can help patients, Ehlinger said. But hopes stemming from anecdotal reports of success shouldn’t trump the medical system’s process for performing research on experimental treatments, he said.
Parents of children with seizure disorders have offered some of the most powerful stories in support of legislation in Minnesota. But Ehlinger said his review of evidence for these treatments suggests “the beneficial impact seems to be spotty.”
“It is human nature to search for any and all options for people who are suffering,” Ehlinger said. But Dibble’s bill would create a “risky shortcut,” he said, that could give patients access to marijuana of “variable quality and strength.”
Lucinda Jesson, the state human services commissioner, said she was concerned the bill would lead to more addiction problems, particularly among teens and people with mental illness.
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, picked up on the point by saying more teens are smoking marijuana now than cigarettes.
“If you want to get your hands around the issue of kids smoking, and you’ve got legalized marijuana in your backyard, there are a whole set of issues …,” Rosen said. “This is a Schedule 1 drug.”
But Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, pointed to the significant addiction risk that comes with some prescriptions painkillers. The status quo with marijuana, Marty said, creates an untenable situation in which doctors can’t openly talk with patients about whether cannabis could help.
“We’ve heard several families say they will leave the state, and I don’t think anybody who’s opposed to this is saying that’s a good option,” Marty said. “I don’t think the strongest opponents to this bill would say: ‘Oh, we don’t care about them.’ I think they’d say: ‘That pains us.’ ”
Dibble said he believes the legislation will win approval from a series of Senate committees and be granted a floor vote by Senate leaders.
“An initial read is that, yes, we do have the votes to get it through the committee process and up to the floor,” Dibble said after the hearing. “I don’t know where the votes are on the floor. I suspect we have the votes on the floor — it seems like we do — but (I) haven’t done a formal nose count.”
Earlier this week, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said he would offer an amendment to insert medical marijuana legislation into a larger health policy bill in the House. The bill is not scheduled for a floor debate before the Easter-Passover break.
Garofalo said his amendment would not allow smoking marijuana, either.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.