Minnesotans who rely on medical marijuana to treat a myriad of conditions will soon be able to smoke the plant.
Gov. Tim Walz signed the omnibus health and human services bill into law this week, which includes a provision to expand the state's medical cannabis program that was created in 2014, with qualified patients allowed to buy the drug starting in July 2015.
The state's program, though, is one of the most restrictive in the country because it only allows patients to use the drug in liquid, oil and pill forms — smokable medical marijuana is banned (a provision that was needed to get lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton to approve the program).
Since the start, many patients have criticized the law for being overly restrictive and have said the cost of the non-smokable forms of medical cannabis is a major barrier (it's not covered by insurance).
But now, starting no later than March 1, 2022, patients will be able to buy the smokeable flower form of the plant, which supporters say will make the medical cannabis program more affordable and accessible.
Prior to getting Walz's signature, the Minnesota House approved the policy-only conference committee report to the omnibus bill on May 17 — the last day of the session — on a 77-57 vote, Session Daily says. The Senate also approved it on a 66-1 vote.
Much of the debate on the massive 500-plus page bill last week focused on the proposed changes to the medical cannabis program. Some, including Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, said allowing people to smoke medical cannabis would lead to recreational marijuana being legalized and should be dealt with in a standalone bill, Session Daily said.
However, proponents of the bill, including some Republicans, said it's not about legalizing the drug but about affordability for patients in need, some of whom are forced to buy the drug illegally because the state's program is so expensive.
“It is not our goal to make this a path to legalization,” Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said during the Senate debate on the bill last week, according to MPR News. “It’s a goal to make this available to people with a medical need who cannot afford it. So, we hope we’ve reached the right balance.”
The House did approve a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana for adults on a historic 72-61 vote on May 13. The bill did not get a single hearing in the Senate, where Republicans oppose it.
The updates to the state's medical cannabis law could go into effect before March 1, 2022, if a procedure is in place for the testing of dried raw cannabis from the state's medical cannabis manufacturers.
When that happens, Minnesota will no longer be the only state with a medical marijuana program that bans the smoking of the drug, MinnPost notes. As of May 18, 36 states allow medical cannabis while 17 states and the District of Columbia allow recreational marijuana, the National Conference of State Legislatures says.
When the program started, there were nine conditions that qualified a patient to receive medical marijuana. Health officials are also considering additional qualifying conditions.