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Medical marijuana supporters plan new tack in Legislature

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Tim Pugmire

MPR News 91.3 FM

St. Paul — Supporters of Legislation to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota are considering a new approach for the 2014 session, and the potential changes are winning the backing of some law enforcement groups.

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State Rep. Carly Melin, the chief author of the bill in the Minnesota House is working on a much narrower proposal that would allow only the use of some non-narcotic, marijuana-derived chemicals.

Medical marijuana advocates have faced unyielding opposition from the state’s big law enforcement organizations, and Gov. Mark Dayton has repeatedly said he won’t sign a bill those groups oppose. But Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said law enforcement is now showing some interest in a compromise version of her bill, which she thinks the governor could eventually sign.

“They want to limit it to pills or liquid-form consumption, rather than the traditional inhalation of marijuana or what you would consider smoking marijuana,” Melin said. “They want that out of the bill entirely. So, we’re looking to other states and having conversations with patients and the medical community to see what the reality is of moving in that direction.”

The Minnesota County Attorneys Association remains opposed to medical marijuana in its traditional leafy form, largely over concerns about its potential use and abuse for non-medical purposes, said its executive director, John Kingrey.

But Kingrey said the association’s board members decided last month that they would be open to a much more narrowly-crafted bill.

“We are very sympathetic to those individuals that suffer from debilitating conditions,” he said. “Marijuana has about 150 compounds in it, and if you can distill some of those elements and it does not include the THC component and if it is effective to treat certain illnesses, we would not be opposed to that.”

Kingrey pointed to a recent, similar proposal in Georgia that would allow the limited use of a cannabis oil for the treatment seizure disorders.

Another longtime opponent of medical marijuana is also showing some interest in the proposed new approach. Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said a marijuana derivative might be workable, if its distribution is limited to a few medical research facilities rather than every doctor.

“It’s something that we certainly should talk about,” Flaherty said. “My membership is not unwilling to be a part of something that can provide Minnesota with an alternative to the widespread legalization.”

Until now, DFL House and Senate leaders weren’t giving medical marijuana much of a chance this year. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said a floor vote on the bill in its current form is unlikely. But Bakk said a compromise measure could provide some “incremental progress.”

“If there are some blends of that that can treat health-related illnesses that can’t be used for people to alter moods, I think that’s absolutely worth exploring,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook. “I want to explore that with the governor and the law enforcement community.”

But the concessions needed to win over law enforcement, could come at the expense of some medical marijuana advocates. The current bill would allow a physician to prescribe medical marijuana in plant form for several “debilitating” conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder and epilepsy. Melin said a move to pills and liquid consumption would shorten the list of diseases.

“Obviously any compromise that we reach is going to cut out even more people, which I think is disheartening for advocates and disheartening for patients,” she said. “But we’re facing reality around here, which is if we can get anything done there’s going to have to be compromise.”

Melin said new bill language could be ready sometime next week. She said a hearing will likely come soon in the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee.

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