Private talks broach gulf between very different House, Senate bills
Legislation left hanging in the final week of any session is subject to a degree of uncertainty, but in 2014 no bill’s fate is as uncertain as the push to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota. The lack of clarity stems largely from the significant disparity between the House and Senate bills, both of which moved quickly through their respective bodies and passed overwhelmingly in floor votes.
Aside from their sudden velocity and a good amount of attention from leadership, advocates and the press, the two proposals shared little in common at the start of the session’s last week.
The chambers both named their conferees on Monday, and staked different agendas even in that simplest of tasks. On the Senate side, outspoken bill author Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, was joined by his equally vocal colleague, Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, who has consistently criticized the upper chamber’s bill for not going far enough, with Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, rounding out the Senate trio.
House author Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, will be teaming up with Republican counterpart Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, who explained during the floor vote that he had only recently come to support the idea, and did so with some hesitation. Also appointed to represent that chamber’s position was House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, whose inclusion surprised some observers and encouraged others, signaling the House’s evident desire to see the bill passed in some form during the closing days of session.
Murphy sounded positive and conciliatory notes on Tuesday evening, and was confident that a deal could be brokered to reconcile the two proposals. For his part, Dibble issued a public letter to outline his problems with the House proposal, which he said was incorrectly being viewed as the “superior” version of the bill, and continued to raise questions about the drug’s availability and usage.
“The House bill came together very, very quickly, without getting the level of scrutiny and thoughtful input – and public input – that the Senate bill did,” Dibble said.
Differences over distribution, treatable conditions
The major differences between the two sides lie in the areas of access and distribution, both of which were highlighted in the letter Dibble addressed to Melin and Gov. Mark Dayton, who has said he favors the House version.
Melin’s bill would create perhaps the most restrictive medicinal marijuana law in the country, with patients gaining access to the drug in conjunction with medical research studies. The House legislation spells out eight medical conditions eligible for treatment with marijuana extracts, though a floor amendment would additionally require the state health commissioner to rule on the possible inclusion of “intractable pain” as a qualifying condition by the summer of 2016. The Senate bill covers any Minnesotan suffering from that condition, or any other disorder that leads to nausea, seizure or persistent muscle spasms.
Dibble’s message criticized the House proposal for limiting the count of distribution outlets to just three throughout the entire state. The Senate bill has allowed for up to 55 locations, though Dibble said he would consider reducing that count to 24, with three distribution hubs for each of the state’s eight congressional districts.
Even that compromise seemed an unnerving proposition to Dayton, who spoke at length about the possibilities during a Monday morning press conference. The governor said he was concerned about the likelihood of cannabis being diverted and redistributed illicitly. Dayton’s fear also stemmed from the Senate’s continued support for making the leaf form of marijuana available in amounts up to 2.5 ounces; the House would only permit consumption of cannabis in oil or pill form, and the use of a vaporizer would need to take place under the supervision of a licensed physician or nurse.
“It’s just, to me, impossible to believe that somebody’s going to buy two and a half ounces of marijuana and not smoke it – or not sell it to somebody else who will,” Dayton said. “It just defies common sense, in my judgment.”
Dibble and Petersen both took umbrage at this line of thinking, arguing that it places potential marijuana users in a category separate from patients who are prescribed other, potentially more harmful narcotics, including opiates.
“What’s sort of implicit in [Dayton’s position] is that, fundamentally, we think these people aren’t worth trusting with the substance,” Petersen said.
Private talks underway
Despite the bill’s emergence as the session’s most visible public debate, the process of settling differences between the vastly different proposals has temporarily gone private. Dibble anticipates that “quieter conversations” will be held to find common ground, and was uncertain when the conference committee would hold public hearings to sort out differences in the bills.
One such meeting took place on Tuesday, according to Dibble, who said key players held initial talks on the matter in the governor’s reception room. The Senate author said he was pleased to hear of Dayton’s statement on Monday that he saw merit in some parts of both bills, with the governor citing the stronger penalties seen in the Senate file, which would make any prohibited use or redistribution of cannabis punishable as a felony.
Previously, Dibble said, House leaders and administration figures had told Dibble that the governor was only considering the lower chamber’s language.
Neither side of the negotiation had a timeframe in mind for final agreement on a bill, though Murphy said she could not foresee a situation where controversy over final terms leads to the bill’s being held over until the 2015 session.
“I think there is enough time,” Murphy said, “Rep. Melin and I have all the will necessary to find a path forward – and I think that’s true for Sen. Dibble as well.”