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Minn. Senate approves medical marijuana bill

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Legalize marijuana rally
Supporters of legalizing marijuana in Minnesota participated in the Yes We Cannabis! rally at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, April 23, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

A proposal to legalize medical marijuana is moving forward in the Minnesota Legislature.

In a bipartisan vote, the state Senate voted 48-18 Tuesday for a bill that allows approved patients access to cannabis in pill and liquid form, but not smoking. The Senate measure does not have the blessing of law enforcement or DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. 

  Bill sponsor state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said medical marijuana could help thousands of Minnesotans who are living in pain and discomfort. Dibble said those patients should not have to seek out marijuana illegally.

"We're asking in this case to allow Minnesotans the same freedom that citizens of over 20 other states have, in the name of compassion, in the name of having access to something that can make a real difference for the better, for some people."

Under the bill, qualified patients would be allowed access to medical cannabis in pill or liquid form. Vaporizing would be allowed, but not smoking. Debilitating conditions eligible for the treatment option include cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, ALS and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  

Of the 21 states with medical marijuana laws, none prohibits smoking. Dibble made the change last week to address the concerns of opponents.     Qualified patients or their caregivers would need state-issued ID cards to obtain cannabis. The bill allows for the manufacturing and distribution of cannabis throughout the state at up to 55 locations known as alternative treatment centers.

The Senate passage of a medical marijuana bill came less than four weeks after Dayton challenged lawmakers to stop avoiding the issue. His comment triggered fast-track consideration of the dormant bill. 

State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, suggested that some DFL infighting was actually driving the bill.

"At the expense of all Minnesotans who should be watching us dealing with more important issues, such as road and bridges and bonding projects, we're meddling around in here, trying prove a point within the ranks of the leadership," he said.   A former sheriff, Ingebrigtsen spoke at length against the bill. He claimed it was the first step toward the legalization of recreational marijuana. 

State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester said lack of research made the proposal "premature."

"It's built on shaky ground," Nelson told lawmakers. "We don't have the scientific information that can allow doctors to use the best drugs for specific use."

One DFL senator said he had concerns about legalizing some forms of medical marijuana.  But Maplewood Sen. Chuck Wiger said he changed his mind last week after learning his uncle is battling cancer and dealing with a lot of pain.

"For God's sake, if people are suffering and we have the ability to provide a way to alleviate that pain, let's hear their concern, let's hear their prayer," Wiger said.

The Minnesota House will vote later this week on medical marijuana bill with major differences from the Senate version. The House measure, known as the Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research Act, would authorize a limited observational study of medical cannabis in liquid and pill form. There would be only one manufacturing and distribution location.

Law enforcement groups that oppose the Senate bill are neutral on the House bill. Dayton has not yet weighed in on the House proposal.