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Medical marijuana: A deal, but will it work?

Mike Mosedale//May 16, 2014

Medical marijuana: A deal, but will it work?

Mike Mosedale//May 16, 2014

Dibble, Melin cut medicinal pot deal with governor’s office amid doubts about feasibility

Amid smiles, congratulations and teary expressions of gratitude, lawmakers on Thursday announced that they had forged an agreement that will make Minnesota the 22nd state in the country to enact some form of medical marijuana legislation.

The measure, which was the product of extensive negotiations and concessions aimed at allaying the shared concerns of the law enforcement lobby and Gov. Mark Dayton, is the most restrictive in the country.

“I think this is a really exciting day for a lot of people,” said Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, the chief author of the House bill from which most elements of the compromise emerged.

Melin thanked the patients and their advocates who joined her at the dais for the announcement. She crediting them for the helping to break the deadlock, saying they fought “very hard through blood, sweat and tears” to build support for the legislation.

Melin’s counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, observed that the bill travelled “some interesting political paths” but said he is “very proud of this agreement.”

“People have been asking us to do this for many, many years,” Dibble added. “The time has come to take this important step.”

The compromise came with the blessing of Dayton. In a statement, Dayton called the bill “citizen government at its best” and pledged to sign it.

But medical marijuana backers and their supporters in the Legislature complained that the compromises went too far and said some of its more unusual provisions could render it economically unviable.

“There is a very high likelihood that it won’t work for anybody,” said Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover.

A co-author of the original Senate legislation and a member of the conference committee, Petersen cast the sole vote against the bill in conference committee on Thursday evening. He said he was particularly displeased with the limited number of diseases that qualify patients to enroll.

About 5,000 expected to be served

Under the terms of the original Senate bill, an estimated 38,000 people were expected to become eligible for treatment. Following the removal of qualifying medical conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain, that figure was revised downward to about 5,000.

The bill makes the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health responsible for selecting two medical cannabis manufacturers to supply the product. The manufacturers will cultivate and harvest the marijuana at two secure, indoor sites, where it will be refined into pills, oil and whole plant extracts. The packaged product will then be distributed at a total of eight locations, also operated by the manufacturers.

In a major concession to the law enforcement lobby, the smoking of marijuana, as well as possession of the actual plant, is forbidden. Patients will be allowed to ingest whole plant extract or oil using a vaporizer.

In the conference committee, Petersen said the smoking prohibition will likely shrink the pool of potential patients, meaning the estimate of 5,000 patients could be high. That figure was extrapolated from Arizona’s medical marijuana program, which, like the other 21 states with medical marijuana laws, permits conventional smoking.

In addition to paying a $20,000 application fee, manufacturers will be required to employ a licensed pharmacist to distribute the product.

“What manufacturers have given any assurances that they would be able to deal with this model and distribution system?” Petersen asked.

Melin responded that she had discussions with “a couple of different manufacturers” who expressed interest in coming to Minnesota after examining the language in the earlier bill passed by the House. That bill was premised on a single-manufacturer model, but Melin indicated she did not expect that the switch to competing manufacturers would be problematic. “They wanted two manufacturers in the state for healthy competition,” she said.

Heather Azzi, the political director of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, called the legislation “a step in the right direction” but said the business model and other restrictions in the bill could present big problems down the line.

“I don’t even know whether it’s workable. No other state has ever attempted a program like this,” said Azzi.

Plant alternatives more intoxicating

Some other provisions in the bill could prove counterproductive, according to Azzi. Because of the prohibition against smoking, she said, some patients will likely resort to vaporizing hash oil. “It’s pretty silly to require patients to consume a more intoxicating substance than what already works for them,” she said.

Patients who enroll in the program will be required to pay a $200 annual fee. That ties Oregon and New Jersey for the most expensive such rate among the 21 states with active medical marijuana programs.

The bill also makes it a felony for patients to sell or share medical marijuana, with penalties including up to two years in prison and a $3,000 fine. Those same penalties apply to a manufacturer who knowingly supplies the product to a non-qualified patient or submits false records or documentation when registering as a manufacturer.

Unlike the more permissive Senate bill, the compromise version will cut into the state’s bottom line. The bill calls for an appropriation of $2.7 million for the Health Department for the coming fiscal year.

After the conference committee sent the bill to the Senate, Petersen said the concessions amounted to little more than a political solution.

“Sen. Dibble and Rep. Melin deserve a lot of credit. They were boxed in by a governor who wasn’t willing to be reasonable on this issue and was never willing to come to the table in a meaningful way,” Petersen said.

“My role from day one was to advocate for the broader group of patients who would stand to benefit. This solution doesn’t do that,” he added. “Somebody needs to remind this body while it’s congratulating itself that we left 85 percent of the patients behind.”

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