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State Senate panel hears medical marijuana bill, delays vote

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Sen. Scott Dibble (center) presents his bill to legalize marijuana, along with Heather Azzi of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care (right) and Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger (left). Tim Pugmire/MPR News

The effort to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota gained new life today when a state Senate panel held a hearing on the previously dormant bill.

The attention came just two days after Gov. Mark Dayton accused lawmakers of  "hiding behind their desks" on the controversial issue. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said Dayton's comment was the reason his bill received its first hearing.

"I view the remark as an invitation to the Legislature to start grappling with the policy debate," Dibble said. "So that's what we're doing."

The Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee heard testimony for and against the bill for more than two hours but delayed a vote until after lawmakers take their Easter/Passover break.

The hearing was similar to one that a House panel held earlier in the session. Several medical marijuana proponents, including patients and the parents of sick children, shared stories about their personal challenges.

Angie Weaver of Hibbing said she wants to be able to get medical marijuana legally for her daughter, who suffers from epilepsy.

"I believe the people of Minnesota are compassionate enough and smart enough to move policies into place that allow people with debilitating conditions, like my daughter, to have access to the medicine they need," Weaver said.  "We are not criminals. We are law abiding citizens. We are just parents that are asking for you to help our daughter."

Kim Kelsey of Excelsior said she believes medical marijuana will help control her son’s seizures.

"Medical cannabis is the closest thing that we have had to a potential cure or miracle," Kelsey said.

The bill would allow the use of marijuana for the treatment of debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, hepatitis C and post traumatic stress disorder. Authorized patients would be able to fill their prescriptions at "alternative treatment centers." The amended version of the bill eliminates home cultivation of marijuana.

Dibble said medical marijuana could help thousands of Minnesotans who are living with discomfort and pain.

"The alternative is that they go without, continue to endure the only treatments that are available through pharmaceuticals or operate outside of the law at great personal risk and in so doing support the criminal system and the corruption and violence that goes with that," he said.

But bill faces big hurdles. Law enforcement groups oppose it, and Dayton has said he has concerns too. Two of Dayton's commissioners testified against the bill.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said there are too many risks and unanswered questions with medical marijuana. More research is needed on the appropriate use of cannabis, along with clinical trials, he said.

"I'm concerned that Senate File 1641 bypasses this rigorous approach and leaves patients to self-administer powerful chemicals and in essence conduct their own experiments," Ehlinger said.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said she's concerned about increasing the availability of an addictive drug.

"I would urge great caution as you proceed, caution about expanding the availability of marijuana in our state,"  Jesson said.

The discussion among committee members will take place later this month. Dibble said he believes he has the votes to advance the bill. But Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she doesn’t like the bill.

"I understand what these families are going through, and your heart goes out to them, but we have to make sure we protect the rest of the state," Rosen said.