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Legal Learning: Legal medical cannabis, the first step

James H. Manahan, J.D.

“I support the bill.” That’s what our state senator for Lake County, Tom Bakk, wrote to me when I urged him to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota. Senate File 1641 would have done just that, in exempting patients with AIDS, cancer, nausea, and many other conditions from criminal penalties for using cannabis prescribed by a doctor. Sen. Bakk, who is majority leader, pushed the bill through the Senate with a bipartisan vote of 48 to 18.

Our state representative, David Dill, was less enthusiastic.

“I really don’t think the bill is going anywhere,” he told me back in April, though “I could be wrong.” As it turned out, he was partly right. The Senate bill didn’t go anywhere, but the House did pass (89 to 40) a much more limited compromise bill, S.F. 2470. The Senate agreed to the compromise, and Gov. Mark Dayton signed it into law. Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis and Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing were instrumental in getting it passed. David Dill voted for the bill, but our other representative, Mary Murphy, voted against it. She didn’t answer my request to know why.

What is the difference between what the Senate wanted and what eventually became law? Here are a few highlights:

• The Senate bill would have made about 35,000 Minnesotans eligible to use medical cannabis. The House bill (the one signed into law) will only help about 5,000 patients.

• The Senate bill would have made the drug available at up to 55 dispensaries statewide. • The House bill permits only two manufacturers with four distribution points each, eight for the entire state.

• The House bill requires patients and their doctors to participate in an onerous and costly study.

• The House bill leaves out patients with intractable pain, but does include cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Tourette syndrome, Crohn’s disease, ALS, and seizures. It also includes chronic pain, wasting and nausea if they are connected to cancer or terminal illness.

• Under the House bill, patients will have to pay an annual fee of $200 to the state.

Law enforcement groups lobbied against the Senate bill. They apparently were afraid that the longer list of medical conditions might result in some people using the drug for enjoyment instead of for treatment. Actually, the law as passed does not permit smoking the weed; people can only use extracts of the plant in the form of pills or liquid. Of all the 21 states that have legalized medical marijuana so far, Minnesota is the only state with this restriction against natural herbal cannabis.

Nonetheless, supporters of the bill rejoiced after even the limited bill got through the legislature. They cited many cases of terrible suffering that standard medicines have not been able to help, but that can be successfully treated with marijuana. Some legislators who had opposed the bill changed their minds after hearing testimony from people with terrible pain or vomiting who have had to buy the drug illegally.

According to a new survey from Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans (54 percent) now support ending marijuana prohibition altogether. And 75 percent of those polled think that the sale and use of marijuana will eventually be legal nationwide. Further, 69 percent of Americans agree that alcohol is more harmful than marijuana. No one, in fact, has ever died from a marijuana overdose.

Here in Minnesota, the legislature decriminalized possession of a small amount of marijuana many years ago. The law here and in 17 other states, treats it like a parking ticket – a small fine, no jail, and not classified as a crime. Now it’s time for us to consider following the lead of Washington and Colorado and take this victimless crime off the books entirely.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author.