Medical marijuana bill clears its first hurdle

Published 9:47 am Wednesday, March 5, 2014

By Jennifer Brooks

Minneapolis Star Tribune

ST. PAUL — A bill that would legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota cleared its first hurdle at the Legislature on Tuesday night after hours of anguished testimony from parents and patients.

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In tears, Joni Whiting told legislators the story of the final months of her 26-year-old daughter’s life, when the only thing that seemed to ease the pain of her cancer was the marijuana her law-abiding family scored for her.

“What would you have done, if you had been in my shoes? Could you sleep at night, with your child screaming in pain? What price would you be willing to pay to relieve the suffering of someone you love?” she said during her testimony before the House Health and Human Service Policy Committee. “The fact is, you can’t do anything for me, but there are so many others in similar situations right here, now, in Minnesota.”

Whiting was among two dozen witnesses who testified, most of them in favor of the legislation that would make Minnesota the 21st state to legalize medical marijuana. It was passed out of the committee on a voice vote.

Witnesses included parents pushing children in wheelchairs, adults walking with canes, a Minneapolis City Council member with glaucoma and a mother who moved out of state so she could enroll her 7-year-old daughter in Colorado’s medical marijuana program. A few testified in opposition, including Michele Gran of Maplewood, who said that her son suffered a rare case of substance abuse-triggered psychosis after experimenting with marijuana as a teen.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, and co-sponsored by legislators from both parties, would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for a range of medical conditions, from children with seizure disorders to cancer patients fighting nausea from chemotherapy. It faces staunch opposition from law enforcement groups, who fear its unintended consequences — including more impaired drivers on the roads and teens gaining easier access to the drug.


‘Less vision than I should’

Tuesday’s hearing was focused solely on the health implications of legalizing the drug. Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson lined a table with the pill bottles he was prescribed to treat his glaucoma and said his doctor confided that he would have preferred to just prescribe him marijuana.

“I have less vision than I should” because the doctor couldn’t prescribe the drug he wanted, Johnson told committee members.

In addition to parents and patients, Tuesday’s testifiers included Baptist preacher and former police officer Todd Mitchell, who uses marijuana to ease chronic back pain — and to wean himself off the addictive painkillers he was taking before — and substance abuse counselor Tim Majerus, who said this state has “turned its back” on veterans such as himself who want to use marijuana to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

The proposed legislation would give patients the option of buying marijuana from a state-licensed dispensary or of growing their own plants under lock and key in their own homes. The bill is modeled on similar programs in other states, including Michigan, which legalized medical marijuana in 2008.

Medical marijuana is under debate in a dozen other states this year. Two states — Colorado and Washington — have gone a step further and legalized the recreational use of the drug. Colorado expects to collect as much as $100 million a year in marijuana tax revenue.

State law enforcement associations have united against the idea of legalizing the drug, warning that any benefits will be outweighed by the risks.

This isn’t the first time the Legislature has debated this issue. A limited legalization bill — one that would have allowed doctors to prescribe the drug to dying patients in hospice — passed in 2009, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Gov. Mark Dayton has made it clear that he is equally leery of legalization and would prefer the Legislature to spend more time studying the issue or to work out a compromise with law enforcement.

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, proposed amending the bill to legalize patients to take medical marijuana in pill, liquid or vapor form but not to smoke it. The amendment was voted down in committee.

Distributed by MCT Information Services