Medical marijuana
Senate version provides better access, particularly in rural Minnesota

Competing bills in the House and Senate would allow the use of medical marijuana in Minnesota. But while both bills are driven by compassion for people who find little relief and suffer significant side effects from traditional pharmaceuticals, the Senate’s bill is superior for several reasons.

In the first place, the Senate bill offers greater access to medical cannabis through a statewide network of dispensaries. Although the bill, as currently written, would allow the creation of up to 55 dispensaries, chief author Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, had indicated he would be willing to trim that number to 24 to win passage of a bill.

By contrast, the House bill, authored by Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, allows a single manufacturer chosen and regulated by the Minnesota Department of Health and limits the distribution sites to three statewide. Not only would that would make it more difficult to obtain medical marijuana for some citizens — especially those in outstate communities — but it would also create a monopoly that could lead to problems in pricing and the quality of medical marijuana available.

Another key difference in the bills is the range of ailments that can be treated with medical marijuana.

The House bill provides medical marijuana to patients with seizure disorders and seven other diagnoses. The Senate bill covers the same conditions, but also helps patients with intractable pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe nausea and wasting syndrome.

In response to law enforcement concerns that allowing medical marijuana to treat pain would provide a way for people to fake symptoms and obtain legal cover for recreational use of the drug, Dibble suggested crafting a specific statutory definition that means pain that won’t respond to any other type of treatment.

In addition, Dibble offered to require that patients receive a second diagnosis from a board-certified specialist in pain medicine before being approved for medical marijuana.

Melin, who brought the issue to the Legislature, has made no secret that she is tailoring her bill to remove objections from law enforcement and win the governor’s signature on a medical marijuana bill. But while her bill would be a step forward for the state, it gives far too much credence to law enforcement objections and doesn’t square with the actual experience in the states that have already approved medical marijuana.

Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia allow the use of medical marijuana, so Minnesota is not entering uncharted waters. The experience of California, the first state to offer the use of medical marijuana, is particularly instructive.

There is no evidence that use of the drug by teenagers has risen since the 1996 legalization in California, despite the drug being widely available. Nor has imposing a local tax on medical marijuana, as some communities in California have done, pushed consumers to drug dealers as some analysts expected.

Ultimately, the chief effect of legalizing the use of medical marijuana in California has meant an expanded market and cheaper prices — and, most importantly, an effective and less addictive alternative to many of drugs now legally prescribed by doctors.

Some argue that permitting medical marijuana will open the door to a debate on legalizing the drug. That may be so, but that debate is likely to emerge anyway with a number of states starting to follow the leads of Colorado and Washington.

But the issues surrounding the legalization of the drug — the effects of marijuana compared to the impacts of alcohol on society and the high cost of enforcing laws against a drug with far less significant impacts than alcohol — differ from those for making the drug a medical option. Indeed, Minnesota’s proposals for making medical marijuana legal exclude smoking the drug, something permitted in other states allowing the use of medical marijuana.

The arguments against legalizing medical marijuana don’t hold up compared to the practical experience in states where the drug’s use for medicinal purposes has already been enacted. The protections built into the Senate bill are more than adequate without unnecessarily hampering the ability of those who seek relief through the use of medical marijuana. A law enforcement community that truly had the welfare of Minnesotans in mind would recognize the Senate measure as the worthwhile compromise that it is.

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