Medical marijuana bill approved by Legislature, heads to Dayton

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Minnesota is one signature away from legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana.

Both the House and Senate approved the medical marijuana bill Friday with strong bipartisan support in each chamber, the Associated Press reports.

The measure they passed was the compromise legislation that emerged from a conference committee Thursday. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will sign the bill.

It gives patients suffering from any of eight medical conditions access to marijuana in pill or liquid form if a doctor or physician's assistant approves. The state Health Department will regulate distribution of the cannabis and will study its effectiveness for patients.

Friday night's approval capped a legislative session that was a tumultuous one for advocates of legalizing medical marijuana. More than once this winter and spring their cause was declared nearly extinct. But patients and their family members were persistent in making their case to state lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton.

The Pioneer Press reports Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, credited patients' families with changing lawmakers' minds:

"This was not on the legislative agenda of most of us in this room," Bakk said prior to the Senate vote. "This is a wonderful example of how representative democracy works. A small group of families with their hurting children came to their state government, and they changed the law."

While the final measure was a compromise among the differing House and Senate versions, it has a closer resemblance to the House's more restrictive approach. The decision to keep marijuana in leaf form illegal came from the House bill. In addition, several medical conditions that the Senate thought should be included – intractable pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, for example – were stricken from the bill.

The Pioneer Press says while the Senate bill would have allowed an estimated 35,000 Minnesotans to make use of marijuana, the final measure will affect 5,000 to 7,000.

The group Minnesotans for Compassionate Care helped lead the lobbying effort for medical marijuana. But KSTP reports the group's political director, Heather Azzi, says of the final legislation : "My biggest concern is the large number of patients who will be left behind."

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The final vote tallies were 46-16 in the Senate and 89-40 in the House.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Lakeville, told the Star Tribune "It is nice when Republicans and Democrats work together to help people by expanding their personal freedoms, rather than limiting them."

The newspaper reports critics of the bill include Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, who cited the lack of scientific study of marijuana's effects on patients. "We’re basically just saying, we’re going to try this and see how this works. I think that is the opposite of compassion, actually," she said.

The legislation calls for the Health Department to begin distributing the drug on July 1, 2015. Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger tells the Associated Press that's an aggressive for getting the program up and running. A doctor who led New Mexico's establishment of a medical marijuana program tells the AP the toughest task is structuring the doctor-patient-Health Department relationship.

Pending Governor Dayton's signature, Minnesota will become the 22nd state to permit medicinal use of marijuana.

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