In a lackluster finish Sunday night to Minnesota’s scheduled legislative session, Senate Republicans voted to kill provision the House passed a day earlier that would have allowed medical marijuana patients to purchase raw, whole-plant forms of cannabis.
The vote came as lawmakers left piles of unfinished business on the table ahead of an end-of-session deadline on Monday. Legislative leaders indicated they’ll be back for a special session June 12, but Senate Majority Leader Paul E. Gazelka (R) said that lawmakers will likely focus on bills “just for COVID-19.”
In other words, patients and medical marijuana advocates will probably have to wait until this fall for another chance to overturn the state’s ban on marijuana flower.
“Next year!” tweeted state Sen. Karla Bigham (DFL). “We got you!”
— Sen. Karla Bigham (@karlabigham) May 18, 2020
Since Minnesota’s medical marijuana program launched in 2015, the state has banned sales of raw cannabis flower, allowing access to only extracts in the form of liquids, pills and vaporized oils. While supporters of the whole-plant ban say it’s a necessary step to prevent smoking, medical marijuana advocates argue the policy has driven up costs while limiting treatment options.
An amendment to a health care omnibus bill approved by the House of Representatives on Saturday would have removed the prohibition on whole plant marijuana and specifically allowed for “raw cannabis.” But around noon on Sunday, the Senate voted to table that version of the omnibus bill after pushback from Senate Republicans. Hours later, senators passed a separate omnibus bill with the medical marijuana provision removed.
— Minnesota Cannabis College (@MNCannabisEdu) May 18, 2020
As the Minnesota chapter of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) noted on Sunday, Senate Republicans seemed to reject the House omnibus bill specifically because of the marijuana amendment. A version of the legislation without the provision “passed the Senate unanimously 10 days ago,” the group observed. “The only change the House made was to amend the bill to allow raw cannabis for medical cannabis patients and move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II.” (A third House amendment barred age-related macular degeneration from the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana.)
#SF3560 passed the Senate unanimously 10 days ago. The only change the House made was to amend the bill to allow raw cannabis for medical cannabis patients and move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II. Today the Senate GOP (@mnsrc) tabled the bill to try to kill it. #mnleg https://t.co/1NnfQ6epVo
— RAMP Minnesota (@ramp_mn) May 17, 2020
Just a day earlier, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL) had expressed hope about the amended bill’s chances in the other chamber, saying on the House floor Saturday that he believed the Senate “agrees with” the proposal.
Sensible Change Minnesota, a drug-reform advocacy group, tweeted that the group had been told “the Senate GOP dug their heels in, and forced an agreement on the health policy bill, removing the #patientsfirst language adding raw cannabis.”
Strictly speaking, the change wouldn’t have allowed the combustion or smoking of medical marijuana. The amendment appeared in a paragraph dealing with vaporized marijuana products, replacing a provision prohibiting “dried leaves or plant form” with an allowance for “raw cannabis.” But because there’s no meaningful difference between flower meant to be vaporized and flower meant to be smoked, the shift would have ultimately made it easier for patients to legally obtain products that they could smoke if they chose to.
Advocates point out that some patients, such as people with terminal diseases, may not be concerned by the health hazards of smoking. Other patients report that inhaled cannabis flower—whether smoked or vaporized—is more effective for treating their symptoms than other marijuana products.
The ban on whole-plant marijuana “drives up costs, threatens the financial viability of cannabis businesses, and deprives patients of access to the form of medicine that works best for many,” the advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project wrote in a letter it asked supporters to send to Minnesota senators prior to their vote. “Several other states initially forbade whole plant cannabis but reversed course after realizing it was harmful to patients to do so.”
Sunday’s failure of the marijuana amendment doesn’t bode well for the chances of an even more ambitious ongoing effort in Minnesota, at least in the short term. Earlier this month, Winkler unveiled a comprehensive plan for legalizing cannabis for all adults 21 and older. The 222-page bill would tax and regulate commercial sales of the drug, expunge past marijuana-related convictions, encourage a craft cannabis industry, prioritize social equity in business licensing and even explicitly require local governments to allow state-licensed marijuana businesses, something most state cannabis laws haven’t done.
But despite teasing the new legislation as “the best legalization bill in the country,” Winkler has already acknowledged that it could have a hard time winning Senate approval. In February, he said it was “highly likely that it will take more than one year to get it done.”
The Senate’s staunch rejection Sunday of the whole-plant provision for medical marijuana patients could be an early sign of an even more contentious cannabis fight to come.
This story has been updated with the correct first name of a lawmaker.