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Dayton signs medical marijuana legislation

By Christopher Snowbeck

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton signed the medical marijuana bill into law on Thursday, but there are mixed feelings among supporters.

Advocates are planning to gather outside the Governor’s Residence today and present him with 33 flowers, each meant to represent 1,000 people the new law does not help.

“Many seriously ill Minnesotans and their families have been waiting a long time to reach this point,” said Heather Azzi, political director for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, which has been pushing for medical marijuana’s legalization. “The new law holds promise for many seriously ill Minnesotans, but it also leaves many behind.”

Dayton has said it was important for medical marijuana proponents to reach a compromise that law enforcement officials would not opposed.

“I thank everyone who worked together to craft and pass this legislation,” the governor said Thursday in a statement. “I pray it will bring to the victims of ravaging illnesses the relief they are hoping for.”

Though Dayton signed the bill Thursday, that doesn’t mean patients can rush out and legally obtain the drug.

First, the Minnesota Department of Health must create a new structure for regulating two manufacturers that will be allowed to grow marijuana in the state.

That will involve hiring about 10 workers for a new Office of Medical Cannabis, which will operate a patient registry to track whether patients are helped by the treatment. If all goes according to plans, certain patients who are terminally ill or suffer from one of eight qualifying medical conditions could obtain marijuana beginning July 1, 2015.

“This is going to be a medical approach,” said Manny Munson-Regala, an assistant commissioner at the state Health Department. “It’s about titrated dosages, it’s about predictable composition of products, gathering information — that’s unique to us.”

The law lets patients obtain marijuana in liquid or pill form. They aren’t allowed to smoke marijuana, or use plant materials in vaporizers. Patients can vaporize marijuana in liquid form.

About 5,000 people per year are projected to use the Minnesota program — a smaller number than the roughly 38,000 people who would have had access under a broader bill that passed in the Senate this spring. The broader bill provided access to patients with intractable pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are not included among qualifying health conditions.

Relatively tight restrictions in Minnesota on the distribution network and the list of qualifying conditions were adopted in response to concerns from law enforcement groups and some physicians.

But Sen. Branden Petersen, a Republican from Andover who co-sponsored the Senate bill, said the final compromise is too narrow.

“We serve 5,000 people, and, of course, we’re all happy for those people,” said Petersen, who voted against the final bill. “But this creates the idea that we accomplished something — and will serve as the reason why we don’t act to serve the other 33,000 people for years. That’s how it’s going to play out.”

Wisconsin approach

Minnesota is now the 22nd state with a full medical marijuana program, according to criteria developed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington D.C.-based group that supports legal access to regulated marijuana.

The tally doesn’t include Wisconsin and six other states that passed laws this year letting a limited group of patients possess a specific type of marijuana.

Wisconsin’s law makes it legal for patients with rare seizure disorders to possess and use an extract of a marijuana compound called cannabidiol, or CBD, in the form of an oil. Physicians could seek approval to dispense CBD to patients, although the law doesn’t specify an in-state source of the marijuana oil.

Wisconsin’s approach isn’t realistic because it “makes patients go out-of-state to get their medicine,” said Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Most medical marijuana states provide access only to state residents, Capecchi said.

Wisconsin patients might fly to a state like Oregon to obtain medical marijuana, he said, but “they’d have to drive or fly back to Wisconsin, which raises a whole host of other legal issues.”

The National Conference on State Legislatures calls the Wisconsin statute a “limited access marijuana product law,” whereas Minnesota is one of 22 states plus the District of Columbia with a comprehensive medical program. Two manufacturers in Minnesota will provide marijuana to patients at eight dispensaries across the state.

Minnesota will have one of the smaller number of dispensaries, Karmen Hanson of the National Conference of State Legislatures said earlier this month. “But many of the laws passed in 2014 do not even allow for a dispensary model — it might just be an individual provider, such as the state’s medical college or a research institution.”

Capecchi said Minnesota’s law is “on the more restrictive side of laws that are out there.” A provision that requires physicians to submit patient data to a state registry for research is unique, he said.

Required reporting

Crafting reporting requirements is one of the challenges for Minnesota going forward, said Munson-Regala of the Health Department. The state needs data about patient outcomes to develop good information about the effectiveness of marijuana, he said, but excessive reporting requirements could prompt doctors to not participate.

Physicians must certify that patients have a qualifying condition such as cancer, glaucoma or seizures such as those characteristic of epilepsy. Some of the most compelling testimony this spring for legalization came from parents of children with rare seizure disorders who’ve seen anecdotal evidence in other states about the benefits from medical marijuana in liquid form.

The law calls on the state health commissioner to evaluate whether intractable pain patients should be added to the list of qualifying conditions in the future, Munson-Regala said. The law also allows for people to petition the Health Department for adding other conditions.

The Legislature would receive a report each February about proposed additions. Unless lawmakers passed legislation to the contrary, the condition would be added the following August.

Under the law, manufacturers must be registered with the state by Dec. 1, so the state will seek applications this fall, Munson-Regala said. Manufacturers face a deadline of supplying medical marijuana by July 1, 2015, although the deadline could be extended by six months if needed.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.