Medical marijuana bill backers weigh paths to Dayton's pen

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton addressed reporters about the medical marijuana bill on May 12, 2014. Dayton has made it clear that he favors the more restrictive version passed by the Minnesota House last week.
Tim Pugmire/MPR News

Negotiations are expected to begin this week between the Minnesota House and Senate on a compromise bill to legalize the limited use of some forms of medical marijuana.

Although bills passed by both House and the Senate would grant Minnesota patients suffering from pain or discomfort to use the drug in pill or liquid form and prohibit smoking, the Senate version would allow patients to vaporize the drug in plant form.

Gov. Mark Dayton has made it clear that he favors the more restrictive version passed by the House last week, and shortly after that bill passed on Friday, he sent a letter to lawmakers. The governor wrote that he would be willing to sign the House version into law if it landed on his desk.

•Previously: Minn. House passes medical marijuana bill acceptable to Dayton

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Dayton repeated that willingness Monday during a news conference and told reporters that the Minnesota Medical Association's support of the House bill is a key consideration.

"If the Legislature is going to prescribe medical treatments for patients, then I think they owe it to the safety of the people of Minnesota to take into special consideration the views of, the predominate views of doctors around the state," the governor said.

Dayton likes the creation of an observational study on the use of medical cannabis in the House bill, to decide whether or not it works as a treatment. Under both bills, qualified patients would have access to cannabis in pill and liquid forms. They could not smoke marijuana plants. But the Senate bill's vaporization provision is one of the reasons Dayton doesn't like it.

"It's just, to me, impossible to believe that somebody is going to buy two and half ounces of marijuana and not smoke it, or not sell it somebody else who will," Dayton said. "It just defies common sense in my judgment."

Dayton also told reporters today that he's also concerned about the wider access allowed in the Senate bill, which would allow for the manufacturing and distribution of cannabis throughout the state at up to 55 locations known as alternative treatment centers.

He said he prefers the House version's limit of one manufacturing and distribution location. Still, he said the Senate bill has some preferable features, such as safety and security protections. Dayton said he hopes a conference committee comes forward with the best of both bills.

State Rep. Carly Melin, the chief sponsor of the House bill, said Dayton's support is a significant step.

"My goal all along has been to get a bill signed into law. Ultimately that means compromise, and that's what we did. We passed a bill in the House that the governor could sign," said Melin, DFL-Hibbing. "I hope that we are able to come to consensus with the Senate and that he's still able to sign it, because ultimately my goal has always been to give relief to patients and families who need it now and can't wait another year."

Law enforcement groups oppose the Senate bill but are neutral on the House bill.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said the House bill falls short in several areas, including access and security.

Dibble said he believes his version is better. "This is a very solid proposal. It's very limited in its scope and it's very mainstream and very reasonable," said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.

"It builds on the best practices that we have from other states that have been really successful at delivering relief to people and seeing that no cannabis gets out into the hands of people who shouldn't have it."

Dibble said he was encouraged that the governor wants to talk about finding a compromise. But a co-sponsor of the Senate bill was less charitable.

State Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said he believes Dayton's position on medical marijuana is nothing new, because it still follows the lead of law enforcement groups.

"He's going to do whatever law enforcement tells him he can do," Petersen said.

Petersen said he thinks the governor should be responding instead to last week's strong bipartisan votes in the House and Senate.

"The fact that you've got a bill that passes with 86 votes and 48 votes, respectively, I think it's a little bit unreasonable to think that the governor is going to have all of his own way on the issue, or that there is no middle ground between what the Senate is proposing and the House is proposing," Petersen said.

The Senate did not immediately take up the message from the House on the medical cannabis bill. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the body will decide Tuesday whether to accept the House bill, table it or appoint a conference committee.