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Competing medical pot bills advance in state legislature

ST. PAUL — Competing bills for medical marijuana advanced at the state Capitol on Friday, but not without changes in a Senate committee hearing and significant questions during another hearing in the House.

The House bill would give patients access to medical marijuana, but only as part of research studies — a compromise put forward Thursday by House leaders in response to concerns from law enforcement groups.

Those groups have testified in opposition to a Senate bill for a statewide network of cannabis dispensaries that would supply medical marijuana to patients with a doctor’s recommendation.

Testifying before the House Rules Committee, state Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger raised practical questions Friday about implementing the research studies called for in legislation from Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing.

The bill directs the Health Department to identify a marijuana manufacturer that could supply medical cannabis to researchers. But Ehlinger said he wasn’t sure such a supplier could be found in the timeline envisioned by the bill, especially since manufacturers must meet standards for the chemical consistency of marijuana they provide.

“It may be that some grower/manufacturer would be willing to make a substantial investment of this kind in Minnesota,” Ehlinger said. “If so, that would be great.

“If not, we have no other mechanism for developing a manufacturing facility,” he said. “Without that, the rest of the activities outlined in this bill could not move forward.”

The bill proposes that the Health Department and researchers explore the possibility of obtaining marijuana from a supply maintained by the federal government for research purposes. But independent researchers say they’ve repeatedly been denied access to this supply for medical marijuana studies.

The House bill would provide $2.2 million for clinical studies over a two-year period ending June 2017. It appropriates $450,000 to cover the cost of Health Department oversight for the studies, and $50,000 for a legislative task force on medical cannabis research.

The House Rules Committee endorsed the measure on a voice vote. It’s scheduled to be taken up next week in the House Ways and Means Committee.