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Legislators send conservative medical marijuana bill to governor's desk over lone protest

Dr. Ed Ehlinger, MN public health commissioner
Dr. Ed Ehlinger, MN public health commissioner

A committee of Minnesota legislators chaired by Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) voted 5-1 Thursday on a single medical marijuana bill that more closely resembles the ultra-conservative House version.

In less than a week, Dibble went from lobbying for his cheaper and more inclusive bill to giving in almost entirely to Rep. Carly Melin's (DFL-Hibbing) bill, which pleases both law enforcement and Gov. Mark Dayton.

See also:
Mark Dayton will sign medical marijuana compromise into law

"It's a process of give and take," Dibble says, vowing to push things further in the future. For the time being, he's agreed to put his weight behind something that Dayton will sign.

So what's in this compromise of compromises? The final bill allows Minnesotans suffering from specific debilitating conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, and Crohn's Disease to consume medical marijuana (although it's momentarily silent on the matters of intractable pain, PTSD, nausea, and wasting). There's a $200 fee to enroll -- $50 for folks on social security disability.

The Minnesota Department of Public Health has until May 1, 2015, to pick two marijuana manufacturers. Each will be responsible for four distribution sites, staffed by pharmacists.

"This is going to change our daughter's life," says Angie Weaver, the teary-eyed mother of an eight-year-girl suffering from Dravet syndrome. She adds: "I thank everyone involved who has made this happen because it has not been an easy process."

There were enough hugs to go around the Capitol, but not the elation that one might have imagined only a month ago. At a Thursday press conference, anyone with eyes could see the division within the ranks of the advocates caused by the recent removal of smoking and certain conditions from Melin's bill.

Some of those folks who've been fighting years for this type of reform were only made aware of the announcement 30 minutes ahead of time and rushed to get there. Others were forced to watch the fruits of their own labors from home. Still others, finding themselves somewhere in between the two camps, peeked over shoulders from the back of the room.

Jessica Hauser says she's withholding judgment until she's certain that her son, who suffers from seizures, will be able to get the medicine he needs. At the very least, she adds, "It's a step in the right direction and it gives us a foundation to ask for more."

 
Critics were quick to point out that lawmakers just approved a bill that costs $5 million and benefits an estimated 5,000 people over a bill that would have paid for itself and benefited an estimated 39,000 people -- all so that the governor could save face.

"He's the single reason why we're leaving 34,000 to 35,000 respective patients out of this bill," says Sen. Branden Petersen (R-Andover), a supporter of Dibble's original proposal and the only member of the final committee to vote no in protest. "We didn't have to reinvent the wheel. We've seen laws in other states that are working models, that are more expansive, that serve more people, and that actually are economically viable."

Because of demands made by law enforcement groups, patients won't be able to smoke or vaporize loose-leaf marijuana, but will have access to "whole-plant extracts," including, but not limited to, hash oil. Depending on how it's processed, however, hash oil can be more expensive and more potent.

"It just demonstrates the reason why these people shouldn't be making the decision in the first place," Petersen says.

What's more, the final bill gives oversight responsibilities to Public Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, the state's top physician and a reluctant supporter of using marijuana as medicine.

Outside the Capitol, Ehlinger bumped into Joni Whiting, whose daughter smoked marijuana at the end of her life to combat nausea. The friendly conversation steered towards a 5-year-old boy suffering from mitochondrial disease whom Whiting knows and who has trouble holding food and medicine in his stomach.

"Is there a way for that child to get help?" she asks.

"It would depend on the manufacturer," Ehlinger replies, explaining that part of his job will be to make recommendations on the range of strains that could benefit patients.

He smiles, then adds: "I can only say [to the manufacturers], 'This is the demand. I hope you meet it.'"

-- Follow Jesse Marx on Twitter @marxjesse or send tips to jmarx@citypages.com


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