- Associated Press - Friday, April 25, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - A Minnesota Senate committee approved on Friday a bill to legalize marijuana for medical purposes despite the opposition of Gov. Mark Dayton, law-enforcement officers and two state agency commissioners.

Chances of it becoming law remain uncertain. It stalled in the House last month and hasn’t moved since, although some members there hope to attach it as an amendment to other legislation.

The legislation would allow patients with maladies such as cancer, epilepsy and extreme chronic pain to use marijuana to alleviate their symptoms. Those patients would receive a card enabling them to buy medicinal marijuana from approved alternative treatment centers, which would grow the pot.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill’s sponsor, tightened the legislation by specifying only licensed medical doctors and doctors of osteopathy would be allowed to prescribe marijuana. And he revised it to give Minnesota Health Commissioner broad powers in shaping the state’s medical-marijuana system.

The bill also would authorize a study to examine the medical effects of marijuana.

Advocates who attended the hearing said afterward they were encouraged, particularly because the bill remained alive.

“It looked like this was dead a month ago,” said Sarah McGuinness, 38, of Shoreview. The natural-foods shopkeeper has a 10-year-old son, Matthew, who suffers from severe profound autism.

She said that Matthew has never taken marijuana to treat his illness. But McGuinness learned recently that he is likely to qualify for a monthlong trial program in Oregon, where medicinal marijuana is legal.

Supporters such as McGuinness have been trying for months to persuade lawmakers and Dayton to allow medical marijuana in Minnesota.

Minnesota law-enforcement opposes the measure because they view increased access to marijuana as dangerous. The state commissioners of health and of human services have testified that marijuana has not received federal Food and Drug Administration approval and that it is an addictive drug. The Minnesota Medical Association announced its opposition in March to the House version due to what it said was a lack of data on medical marijuana.

Others, such as Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, expressed the worry during Friday’s hearing that not enough is known to safely assign doses and identify medical marijuana’s purity and potency.

“Without scientific knowledge, we’ll never get to a place where we can use marijuana for medical purposes,” Nelson said. “It would be premature to move a medical-marijuana bill without scientific backing.”

But Dibble said during the hearing that considerable evidence does exist, be it research-based or anecdotal. “People have used it for thousands years,” he said.

That’s one argument that helped Dr. Dan Morhaim, an emergency room physician and member of the Maryland state legislature for decades, persuade lawmakers in Maryland to make it the 21st state to legalize medical marijuana earlier this month.

“Medicines come from plants,” Morhaim said in a Friday phone interview with the Associated Press, ticking off penicillin, opium, aspirin and quinine as examples.

Morhaim said that Maryland’s law includes stringent safeguards, such as criminal background checks, on who dispenses the medical marijuana. Dibble’s bill includes similar provisions.

During his years in the ER, Morhaim said he never saw negative consequences due to marijuana use. “Nor have I seen anyone ever OD from marijuana.”

Heather Azzi, political director for the nonprofit Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, believes she has enough support to get approval of the bill in the state Senate

The Committee on Health, Human Services and Housing vote was 7-3. The legislation goes next to the State and Local Government Committee.

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