The clock is ticking on medical marijuana legislation at the Capitol.
With the Legislature scheduled to adjourn in a week, the Senate on Monday postponed taking up a bill passed by the House last week.
The delay will help lawmakers search for middle ground on competing versions of the legislation in the House and Senate, their sponsors said.
Gov. Mark Dayton said Monday that he hopes the Legislature will send him a medical marijuana bill he can sign into law.
The final measure can be a compromise between the House and Senate versions, Dayton said, but he prefers the House version — especially because the Senate bill would let patients have access to whole-leaf marijuana for use in vaporizers.
“It’s just, to me, impossible to believe that somebody is going to buy 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana, and not smoke it or not sell it to someone else who will,” Dayton said during a news conference at the Capitol.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana. The issue has been pushed to the forefront in Minnesota and other states this year by families seeking access to the drug for children with severe seizure disorders.
Children take marijuana in a liquid form, and families say the treatment is superior to traditional pharmaceuticals that they say offer little relief and significant side effects.
Similar concerns have prompted lawmakers in seven states this year to allow limited access to a form of medical marijuana that’s thought to help with seizure disorders.
In Minnesota, the House passed its bill Friday on an 86-39 vote after nearly five hours of emotional debate. Four days earlier, the Senate passed its bill 48-18.
The Senate might take up the House bill Tuesday, said Amos Briggs, spokesman for the Senate DFL Caucus. At that point, the Senate could table it, pass the House version or appoint a conference committee, Briggs said.
The House bill provides medical marijuana to patients with seizure disorders and seven other diagnoses. The Senate bill covers the same conditions, but also would help patients with intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe nausea and wasting syndrome.
Law enforcement groups and doctors have questioned whether letting pain patients have medical marijuana would provide a way for people to fake symptoms and obtain legal cover for recreation use.
Critics have pointed to the experience in Colorado, where the majority of patients seeking medical marijuana have done so, in part, to deal with chronic pain.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is the chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate; Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, is the chief sponsor in the House.
In a letter sent Sunday to Dayton and Melin, Dibble said his bill would limit cannabis to patients with “intractable pain,” which has a specific statutory definition that means pain won’t respond to any other type of treatment.
Dibble offered to require that patients receive a second diagnosis from a board-certified specialist in pain medicine before being approved for medical marijuana.
“Use of cannabis for this purpose has shown to allow for reduced use of expensive and harmful pain medications including highly addictive opioids,” Dibble wrote.
During his news conference, Dayton would did not say whether he thought medical cannabis should be available to pain patients.
“I’m not qualified — I don’t, frankly, think the Legislature is qualified — to decide who medically qualifies for something whose effects aren’t established, except anecdotally..,” Dayton said.
“I want people who need it and who might benefit from it to have access to it. I’m not going to say one should be in and one should not — I don’t have the expertise.”
Dibble’s bill would allow patients access to medical cannabis through a statewide network of dispensaries. As passed by the Senate, the bill would create up to 55 dispensaries, but Dibble said in his letter that he would trim the number to 24.
Under the House bill, one manufacturer chosen and regulated by the Minnesota Department of Health would provide medical marijuana at up to three sites. The structure creates a “monopoly business,” Dibble wrote in his letter, saying there could be problems in terms of the pricing, quality and availability of cannabis from such a supplier.
Dibble argued that his bill does a better job addressing public safety concerns. He also criticized the House bill for restricting access to cannabis only in the form of liquids and pills.
“Refusing access to the whole plant form and providing only the limited, much more expensive forms of processed cannabis in the House bill leaves many patients behind, and exposes those who do participate to lesser efficacy and greater risk,” Dibble wrote.
Neither bill would allow patients to smoke marijuana.
Dayton said that if the Senate bill has stronger protections for public safety, he hopes they will be included in whatever final compromise comes from the Legislature.
The governor said he opposes having 55 dispensaries, but he did not say whether 24 were acceptable.
The Minnesota Medical Association prefers the House bill, and Dayton said its position should be given “special consideration.”
Like law enforcement officials, Dayton said he was concerned about the chance that legalizing medical marijuana could lead to more problems with drug addiction, particularly among teenagers.
“We want to do anything we can to relieve the pain and suffering of children and adults who suffer from diseases and afflictions that might — might — be helped by medical marijuana, but we want to do it in a way that’s not going to open up even more people to greater harm,” Dayton said. “I hope the negotiation can come forward with the best of each bill.”
In an interview, Dibble said Monday’s delay would allow “some conversations about some middle ground before we establish the formal conference committee process.”
Melin agreed, but said: “Our biggest concern is that time is running out this session.”
Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at 651-228-5479. Follow him at twitter.com/ chrissnowbeck.
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