WDAY: The News Leader

Published April 29, 2014, 02:00 PM

Minnesota Senate panel approves medical marijuana bill

ST. PAUL - A bill to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota cleared a second committee hurdle in the state Senate on Tuesday, and is scheduled for another hearing Wednesday.

By: Christopher Snowbeck, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Forum News Service

ST. PAUL - A bill to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota cleared a second committee hurdle in the state Senate on Tuesday, and is scheduled for another hearing Wednesday.

The Senate’s state and local government committee approved the measure on a voice vote after reviewing rule-making provisions that would govern how a new network of marijuana dispensaries would prevent thefts and advertise cannabis treatment.

Rules also would govern how new groups of patients could seek access to marijuana, as well as a system for tracking marijuana inventories.

The legislation from Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, provides access to 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana for patients with conditions including cancer, glaucoma and AIDS. Cannabis also could be used for the treatment health problems such as severe nausea and epilepsy seizures.

Doctors would have to certify that a patient might benefit. Patients would receive an ID card from the state health department, and obtain marijuana from a new network of dispensaries.

The bill asks the state health commissioner to create rules for receiving petitions from the public about new patient groups that might want access to access medical marijuana in the future. A medical cannabis advisory council would provide input on any such petitions, which would be subject to a public hearing.

Under the bill, the health commissioner also would work with law enforcement personnel to develop standards to prevent diversion and theft of marijuana from dispensaries, which the bill calls “alternative treatment centers.”

Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, asked why Dibble’s bill would create a new network of treatment centers rather than utilize pharmacies, which she said do a good job of handling other controlled substances.

Dibble said he believed dispensaries would enforce tougher standards to prevent cannabis diversion. Heather Azzi of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, a lobbying group that supports the bill, added that pharmacies could run afoul of federal regulations by dispensing marijuana.

When Eaton commented during the hearing that legislation for medical marijuana might simply be a cover for advancing outright legalization of marijuana, Dibble seemed to take offense. He asked that committee members not “question the veracity of what I’m proposing to do here.”

Aggie Leitheiser, an assistant commissioner in the health department, offered testimony raising a laundry list of concerns about the rule-making provisions in the bill. “We’re concerned about the timeline,” Leitheiser said.

But Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, questioned why the health department -- which has previously testified against the bill -- didn’t provide the critical commentary sooner, so Dibble could respond to concerns with an amendment. Sen. Branden Petersen, a Republican from Andover and co-author on the bill, challenged the health department’s assertion that it shares the goal of promoting patient access to promising new treatments.

Leitheiser referred to a proposal put forward by Gov. Mark Dayton to give some patients access to medical marijuana as part of a clinical trial. But Petersen said such studies offer little help because federal rules surrounding marijuana prevent research from moving forward quickly.

Marijuana is deemed by the federal government as a Schedule I controlled substance. Petersen suggested that Dibble’s bill ought to eliminate that designation for marijuana in Minnesota.

Dibble responded such a provision might take the focus of the bill off medical marijuana, adding: “Unwinding that is going to be a very, very long national debate.”

The bill asks the health commissioner to establish advertising and marketing rules that likely would prevent dispensaries from using “neon signs flashing,” Dibble said. Marijuana sold in dispensaries would have to be tested and labeled to indicate the potency of the cannabis as well as its weight.

The health commissioner would establish rules for criminal background checks of dispensary operators, and create a process for investigating complaints.

Dibble’s bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate’s judiciary committee Wednesday.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.