Minnesota Senate debates medical marijuana

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Senate debated a bill to legalize marijuana for medical purposes on Tuesday, but the measure would prohibit patients from consuming the drug by smoking.

The Senate proposal would allow patients to use marijuana in the form of pills, oil and vapor. If such legislation becomes law, Minnesota would be the first state in the nation to exclude smoking as it legalizes medical marijuana.

State law-enforcement groups oppose any proposal that would allow plant material in the hands of patients, either growing their own plants or smoking. They say legalizing the possession of the marijuana plant, even for medical reasons, would lead to wider distribution of the drug. Police, prosecutors and sheriffs say, among other things, it would lead to more incidents involving drugged drivers, and ultimately pot would wind up in the hands of children.

"If you allow the smokeable plant to be distributed, you're going to end up simply with a bag of marijuana in a car," said Champlin Police Chief Dave Kolb, co-chairman of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. "At that point, no one can determine where it came from and where it's going."

But many medical-marijuana patients argue that approach is shortsighted. Some conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea, render patients unable to consume the drug in pill or oil form. Smoking is a method that provides immediate relief, and it doesn't require an expensive vaporizing machine to provide the necessary dose, they say.

"A vaporizer is cumbersome," said Pat McClellan, 47, a Burnsville resident who uses one to treat his mitochondrial myopathy, a type of muscular dystrophy. "It takes both hands to use and the high-end ones, which don't break like the other ones, can cost $500 to $700."

Gov. Mark Dayton said on Monday that appeasing law-enforcement was only one consideration in determining whether he will sign any bill into law.

"Are the people who need to be helped going to be helped? Are the people who need to be protected going to be protected," Dayton said.

Several Republican senators opposed the bill, arguing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should approve marijuana for medical use before Minnesota legalizes it.

"If we're going to listen to someone who (just) says he's a doctor, why don't we rely on snake oil, bloodletting and the ever-popular leeching," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, during the debate.

The Senate proposal would put the Minnesota Department of Health in charge of implementing the state's medical-marijuana program. On July 1, next year, 55 alternative treatment centers that would grow, harvest and process the marijuana would open to dispense the marijuana medications to qualifying patients.

Patients would apply for a photo-identification card and would have to be diagnosed with a specified set of conditions caused by maladies including epilepsy, cancer and glaucoma. The patient would have to be examined by a medical doctor or doctor of osteopathy. That doctor would be required to issue a written opinion that the patient likely would benefit from marijuana treatment.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday readied that chamber's version of the bill for a floor vote later in the week. It also would exclude smoking and would allow only one dispensary statewide.

The path to the Minnesota medical-marijuana deal has been fraught.

A House bill stalled in March when Dayton suggested a research study on the effects of marijuana that could have delayed action for years. Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger and Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda E. Jesson have opposed it.

Yet other doctors, scientists, several Minnesota lawmakers and parents of ill children argue that years of evidence exists from some of the 21 states and the District of Columbia where medical marijuana is legal, that the drug relieves disease symptoms.

The legislation was revived last month after Dayton appeared to alter his stance, and urged lawmakers to stop stalling and agree on a compromise bill. The House expects to discuss and perhaps vote on its version on Friday.

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