Medical marijuana expert met privately with MN policymakers to discuss legalization

Dr. Steven Jenison speaking in Iowa about New Mexico's medical marijuana program, two months before coming here
Dr. Steven Jenison speaking in Iowa about New Mexico's medical marijuana program, two months before coming here

Minnesota may be closer to legalizing medical marijuana than anyone realizes.

At a press conference earlier this year, Gov. Mark Dayton reiterated his opposition to medical marijuana and argued that "objective information" was needed in the debate, seeming to slam the door shut.

But a couple weeks later, some legislators and public health advocates met privately with Dr. Steven Jenison, the first director of New Mexico's medical marijuana program, to talk about the potential challenges of implementing a similar program here.

SEE ALSO: When will medical marijuana be legal in Minnesota?

The questions raised over the course of two days provided a window into the thought-process of Minnesota policymakers. Chief among the concerns was whether enough safeguards could be put in place to keep the supply of patients out of the hands of healthy adults and children.

"Really," Jenison says, "the program is going well and it seems to be benefiting the people for whom the legislature and governor intended -- people who are suffering severe, debilitating conditions who have not derived relief from more conventional treatments."

The number of patients who've been approved for New Mexico's program is about 10,000, and the way their medication has been handled is no different than painkillers, Jension says. As a physician who also chaired the state's medical marijuana advisory board, he acknowledges there are legitimate concerns about, say, the relationship between marijuana and early onset of Schizophrenia.

The plant should not be perceived as a cure-all, he adds, and the law of New Mexico doesn't make such a bold claim. What it says about marijuana is much simpler.

"If your experience is that you derive benefit, and other medications have failed you, then you shouldn't be criminally liable," Jenison says.

The late January meetings were organized by Heather Azzi, the political director for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, and included two of Dayton's advisers. As of late, the governor has played both sides of the debate -- promising to veto anything that doesn't have the support of law enforcement while suggesting that he's open to signing a bill, provided that a study of other state's programs came back positive.

"We have 20 examples now from which to draw," Azzi says, "and New Mexico happens to be one that's fairly close to the one proposed in Minnesota."

Azzi should know: she wrote the medical marijuana bill that could be debated at the committee level as soon as next week. For instance, the qualifying conditions of patients and low-profile dispensaries here would be similar to the ones in New Mexico. What's more, the ability to grow your own supply would require a license, and a great deal of control would be put in the hands of the state's department of public health.

Dave Renner, a legislative strategist for the Minnesota Medical Association, which lobbies on behalf of physicians, also attended a meeting. He says it was an opportunity to gather facts about the efficacy of marijuana as a medicine because a lot of evidence thus far has been anecdotal.

"It's hard to get data," Renner says. "It's hard to do a double-blind study when you have a product that is officially illegal in the eyes of the federal government."

The association takes no position on medical marijuana but has a policy forum scheduled for early March in which members can offer their opinions on the current legislation. There's a good reason why the example of New Mexico is being pushed here over the example of California, which has comparatively broad and lax regulations.

"My sense is it would be easier to pass New Mexico's law than it would be to pass California's law in Minnesota just because of the additional oversights," Renner says.

Multiple sources tell us Minnesota public health commissioner Edward Ehlinger and two of Dayton's advisers also met with Jenison, though they did not return our messages seeking comment.

-- Follow Jesse Marx on Twitter @marxjesse or send tips to [email protected]

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