Public health commissioner Ed Ehlinger testifies against senate medical marijuana bill

In front are Sen. Scott Dibble, left, and Minnesota public health commissioner Ed Ehlinger

In front are Sen. Scott Dibble, left, and Minnesota public health commissioner Ed Ehlinger

The senate version of a bill that would legalize marijuana for medical use in Minnesota got its first hearing Thursday, undergoing two hours of testimony and proving that the issue is not dead. Time ran out before members of the Health, Human Services and Housing Committee could vote, but they plan to resume discussion when they return from Easter/Passover break.

The hearing came less than 48 hours after Gov. Mark Dayton lamented that legislators have "hidden behind their desks" while he's been portrayed as the sole voice of opposition. His corner has grown to include more than one member of his own cabinet, including the state's public health commissioner Ed Ehlinger, who would play a large role in Minnesota's medical marijuana program if ever established.

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The primary caregiver to a spouse with a debilitating condition, Ehlinger testified that the goal of using marijuana as medicine is worthy but lacks scientific merit. The problem, he argued, is that the plant is more complex than some well-meaning doctors might realize and that it has not gone through the level of testing required of other meds to determine things like proper dosage, purity, and side effects.

"We are concerned," the commissioner says, "that (the bill) bypasses this rigorous approach and leaves patients to self-administer powerful chemicals and in essence conduct their own experiments."

Dr. Jacob Mirman

Dr. Jacob Mirman

Rather than green light a distribution system for a range of qualifying patients, Dayton's office is proposing that $2.2 million be pumped into research of CBD -- the non-psychoactive compound in marijuana that has been effective in controlling infantile seizures.

Ehlinger, however, argued that results in the area of child epilepsy were "spotty." He suggested that stories of dramatic improvement were just that -- stories -- although he offered no evidence of his own besides vague references to a study and colleagues in states with medical marijuana programs already in place.

His message of caution and delay was seconded by state human services commissioner Lucinda Jesson, another Dayton appointee, who focused her brief remarks on the risks of marijuana on adolescent brain development.


As the bill's author, Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) doesn't deny that there are legitimate concerns about addiction and mental health, which is why Minnesota's program would go beyond the safeguards of other states to ensure only qualifying patients get access. The program would be one of the toughest -- if not the toughest -- in the nation. It would be far more restrictive than California's and about equal to New Mexico's, which is considered a success by the dude who used to manage it.

"We're asking, in the name of compassion, to have access to something that can make a real difference in their lives," Dibble says, noting that the alternatives are to force some patients to continue using ineffective (and potentially dangerous) pharmaceuticals, or risk charges of possession.

To drive the point home, Dibble and his supporters invited a doctor of their own -- Jacob Mirman, an internal-medicine specialist and director of the Homeopathic Medical Clinic in St. Louis Park. Mirman spoke of a 90-year-old male patient who suffers from nausea and depression but finds no relief in traditional meds. Marijuana is another option.

"But I can't tell him that, because it's illegal," the doctor says. "On the other hand, if I don't tell him that, it's unethical on my part to withhold this information. I'm in a bind here."

He found sympathy from at least one committee member, Sen. Michelle Benson (R-Ham Lake) who noted that doctors are already allowed to prescribe off-label products to patients.

"I'd like us to consider the ability of doctors to use their medical judgment for this as well," she says, "and I think that's where a lot of people in the room would like to be."

In addition to testimony from several patients and the so-called Minnesota mommy lobby, the committee received a letter of support from the Minnesota Nurses Association as well as a list of national organizations that already stand behind medical marijuana, including the Epilepsy Foundation.

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