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Medical marijuana legislation passes overwhelmingly out of House

Rep. Carly Melin spoke with supporters in the House gallery shortly after the successful vote on Friday.

Rep. Carly Melin spoke with supporters in the House gallery shortly after the successful vote on Friday. (Staff photo: James Nord)

It appears more likely that Minnesota will enact some form of medical marijuana legislation this session, but the path forward is uncertain.

The House overwhelmingly passed a limited measure Friday evening to provide people ailed by certain, strictly defined conditions access to medical marijuana at a small number of distribution sites in the state. After an afternoon of debate, a swath of Republicans joined Democrats in moving the proposal forward 86-39. The lower chamber followed the Senate, which passed a much broader medical marijuana plan 48-18 on Tuesday.

“It was difficult to envision getting to this point,” DFL Rep. Carly Melin, the bill’s chief author, said shortly after the vote. “It’s really great to be here.”

The Hibbing Democrat’s plan would allow patients with certain conditions including cancer and HIV/AIDs access to marijuana. The cannabis would be available in multiple forms, including typical flower marijuana, though that type could not be legally smoked, only vaporized. The Commissioner of Health would have the authority to permit different methods of ingestion, and also approve new conditions that would grant access to the drug.

Melin has taken flak from some supporters of medical marijuana legislation, including the main organization lobbying for it at the Capitol, Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, for capitulating on a stronger proposal — the one that passed the House on Friday is a far cry from her original bill. But Melin has said she didn’t see a path forward without compromising with law enforcement interests, which have Gov. Mark Dayton’s ear, and remain the key to securing his signature for a medical marijuana plan.

Even though the bill received a strong vote, many lawmakers also raised concerns. Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, echoed a string of lawmakers who thought that medical marijuana could proliferate into schools and Minnesota communities. Myhra argued that substance abuse is “skyrocketing” among Minnesota’s youth.

Melin successfully staved off a series of amendments to broaden her proposal, as well as some to tighten it. It left the House largely unscathed. An amendment to simply adopt the Senate language, from Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, was met with kind words from Melin and others, but described as impractical. It went down more overwhelmingly than Melin’s bill passed.

In a letter contrasting the House and Senate proposals, Dayton identified concerns with provisions in the upper chamber’s bill ranging from consumer protections to the number and location of distribution and manufacturing centers.

“If the Legislature passes the House’s current language, I will sign it into law,” Dayton wrote. But that doesn’t mean he’ll have the opportunity.

DFL Sen. Scott Dibble’s proposal will likely have to be merged with Melin’s more restrictive bill in conference committee. But the two chambers are still far off from each other in terms of the details. The nuclear option, a veto override is unlikely, but on the table. The Tuesday Senate vote breached the veto override threshold in the upper chamber, while Friday’s House tally fell four votes short of the 90-vote requirement. But votes overturning the governor are historically much more difficult to take.

Melin has defended her pared-down measure.

“I’m not willing to take an all-or-nothing approach,” she added. “I ultimately knew there was going to be a compromise, and maybe it was more than I wanted, but ultimately a lot of people are still going to benefit from it, and that’s what matters in the long run.”

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