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Senate charges ahead on medical marijuana

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the Senate legislation’s approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday evening.]
From tax cuts to bonding, the big-picture stories of the 2014 session have mostly involved a hurried House and stolid Senate. But now, as the term approaches its scheduled end, it’s the upper chamber that’s rushing full speed ahead on one of the more controversial issues of the 88th Minnesota Legislature.

In the span of less than a week, a bill to legalize medicinal marijuana has cleared three committee votes. The second of those came during a Monday afternoon stopover in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, a mere formality given the legislation’s status as a late bill; the proposal was heard for all of three minutes. During that time, Senate Minority Leader David Hann raised a practical question: Why, he wondered, was the Senate in such a rush to push forward on a bill that seemed to have no traction in the House and little interest from Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration, at least in its current form?

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk explained that the Senate’s quickened pace came at Dayton’s urging.

“The governor, probably about two weeks ago, actually asked the Legislature to move on the bill,” Bakk said. “I guess, at his request, we thought we would show him that courtesy.”

The bill cleared on a voice vote, and did so again during a Tuesday hearing in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. But Hann’s point is not lost on the proposal’s supporters, including both lobbyists and members of the House, where numerous legislators said they’d heard only minimal discussion about the bill.

“They’re being very quiet on the House side now,” said Heather Azzi, political director of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, who added that she wasn’t sure whether the Department of Health was acting as a “good faith” partner in negotiations.

In spite of those lingering questions, the bill continues to roll on in the Senate.  The judiciary committee was scheduled to debate its merits on Wednesday, and an appearance in the Senate Finance Committee – its last before a floor vote – could take place as early as Friday of this week.

No movement in the House

To date, the House version of the bill, carried by Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, has received only a single vote in that body. Melin’s legislation passed the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee in early March, theoretically sending the bill on to the government operations committee. But the bill has not resurfaced since that date. Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, one of the House file’s many coauthors, said the bill had not been a focus of discussions within the House DFL caucus, though he was aware of ongoing work toward its passage.

“I’m assured those conversations have continued, and I’m trying to piece together what’s going on,” Schoen said.

With the bill apparently stalled in the House, advocates have prepared to take a different approach by putting the package up for a full House vote through a floor amendment. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, was prepared to offer such an amendment during a recent floor session when the chamber was scheduled to take up the health and human services policy bill.

That bill was pulled back from the floor schedule, though, in a move that came as an unexplained surprise to committee chair Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, the bill’s author. As of midday Tuesday, Liebling was unaware of the reason why the vote on her bill had been canceled. Liebling added that she was concerned about any further delay, saying the bill would probably be subject to many amendments, including a medical marijuana proposal – Liebling, for her part, is a co-author on Melin’s bill – and would inspire a lengthy floor debate.

“The HHS policy bill represents an enormous amount of work by a lot of legislators,” Liebling said. “Since I, as the [committee] chair, don’t know why it’s not being brought up to the floor, that gives me cause for some concern.”

Following Tuesday’s floor session, House Majority Leader Erin Murphy said the HHS policy package had been pushed back to allow for a vote on a bill changing regulations on newborn screening, which passed in the Senate last week.

Murphy, a registered nurse, said she has supported medicinal marijuana in the past, but was trying to be mindful of the concerns expressed by law enforcement and medical professionals this session. To that end, Murphy said, she has held “a number of meetings” with stakeholders on the issue in recent weeks. She added that she disagreed with the effort to pass the proposal by means of an up-or-down vote to an amendment offered on the floor.

“On something that is complicated like this, that has health, public safety and law enforcement issues involved,” Murphy said, “I think it is important that it is fully vetted through the committee process.”

Floor vote in House still possible

Azzi, the chief lobbyist working toward the bill’s passage, said she sees the House bill’s prospects for moving through multiple committees as “very unlikely” given the lack of action to this point. She also expressed some exasperation with the Dayton administration, citing Tuesday’s Senate hearing, where Aggie Leitheiser, assistant commissioner with the Department of Health, posed a series of critical questions about the bill carried by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.

Following the hearing, Azzi said most of Leitheiser’s concerns would have been more appropriately handled in the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee, the bill’s previous stop.

Dibble, testifying in support of his bill, said he wished he had heard from Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger prior to Tuesday’s hearing.

“I spoke with the commissioner a couple of hearings ago, and said my door is wide open,” Dibble told the committee. “[Ehlinger] said, ‘I’ll be calling you, and we’ll talk some more, because I want to have a productive conversation. ’ My phone has yet to ring.”

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, another of the bill’s coauthors, said he was “hoping for” a floor amendment vote in lieu of the typical committee route. As chair of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, Paymar would have liked to hear the bill there, but would still vote in favor if the proposal arrived on the floor – even if passing it could mean a veto from Dayton.

“I think, frankly, the governor is wrong on this issue,” Paymar said. “I’d like to see the Legislature take a vote.”

Passes Senate judiciary panel

As expected, Dibble’s bill cleared yet another obstacle on Wednesday with its approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearing lasted nearly five hours, with mothers, relatives and testifiers who are themselves afflicted with illness speaking out in favor of the proposal, while a group of law enforcement and state leaders voicing their opposition.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman said the sanctioning of marijuana as a medical treatment “could lead to the perception that [marijuana] is harmless.” Dennis Flaherty of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA) testified that the interim period, where some individuals could purchase marijuana as a treatment before a full administrative structure was in place, could be “fraught with problems.” Flaherty’s is one of several police and criminal justice organizations that oppose the bill, and whose opposition is seen as key in swaying Dayton’s opinion.

The bill was amended numerous times during the course of the hearing. One change brought by Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchison, would give legislative authority to rescind inclusion of some conditions from being labeled as “debilitating.” Dibble eventually supported Newman’s proposal. As amended, the commissioner of health would still be allowed to add new afflictions to that list, but legislators would be able to remove conditions from the list retroactively.

Another amendment brought by Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, would have eliminated smoking marijuana from the allowed usages, but that suggestion fell on a voice vote.

At Newman’s suggestion, the bill was moved out of the committee without recommendation to pass; he assured his DFL counterparts that he would not use that status as an argument against the bill at a later stage. The motion was agreed to on a voice vote, despite some audible votes against it, sending the bill to the Senate Finance Committee, which would likely be its last test before hitting the Senate floor.

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