UMD hosts panel disscussion on medical marijuana

On Monday, Nov. 11, Minnesota State Representatives held a panel discussion on the UMD campus about the medical marijuana legislation currently being proposed in Minnesota. The panel covered both sides of the issue and was opened up to the audience for a question and answer session at the end. The bill was introduced earlier this year by Representative Carly Melin, member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The purpose of the bill would be to allow doctors in Minnesota the right to prescribe medicinal marijuana to patients who are seriously ill or in chronic pain.

“I introduced the bill last year knowing there was going to be a lot of conversation surrounding it, with hopes to receive a lot of community input,” Melin said. “I continue to learn more and more about the benefits of medical marijuana and having forums like this is definitely beneficial in moving forward.”

Currently, 20 states allow the use of medical marijuana, and the plant was actually used as a medicine for thousands of years in the past. In fact, in 1937 the U.S. enacted the Marijuana Tax Act to tax all sales of marijuana, when it served as the the basis of more than 27 pharmaceutical medications.

However, the overriding issue of this debate is the required change to the 1972 United States Controlled Substances Act. This act labeled marijuana a Schedule I drug, which means the drug is not allowed for medical purposes because it has high potential for abuse and is considered unsafe. In order to prescribe medical marijuana legally, it must be changed into a Schedule II drug, which includes the drugs that are currently legal for medical prescription. (Click here for the Drug Enforcement Regulation's definition and classification of the different drug schedules).

When the recreational use of marijuana picked up in the 70s, the medical benefits were rediscovered, introducing the intentions of a reform to the 1972 act.

“People with illness found that it was working and researched the health benefits,” said Heather Azzi, political director for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care. “A petition was submitted to the FDA to reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule II drug. Unfortunately, it was ignored and there has been no progress since.”

This bill should not to be confused with legalizing the use of recreational marijuana. If passed in Minnesota, marijuana will be used strictly for medicinal purposes, and therefore comes along with stipulations.

The bill would allow patients with a medical marijuana card to possess no more than 2.5 oz. at a time, and it has to be recommended by their physician. There will be one dispensary in each county, and up to three in metro areas. All dispensaries have to be state licensed facilities by the Minnesota Department of Health.

For those card holders that choose to abuse the privilege and illegally distribute the drug to someone without a card, they will face prosecutions of a felony. This will help to control the dissemination of the drug to people who are not sick.

“This legislation is to make sure people who are sick with chronic and terminal illnesses have access to medical marijuana if their doctor says it would be the best practice for them,” Melin said. “We’ve seen that there are a lot of other drugs out there that have more harsh effects than marijuana.”

According to Melin, the medical evidence of the benefits of marijuana is overwhelming; the biggest barrier is the legal and law enforcement issues. Minnesota is at an advantage because the law can be created based on what has been successful or not in the allowance of medical marijuana within other states.

Azzi offered research that shows marijuana alleviates pain and reduces spasms. No one has ever died from an overdose and it comes along with a wide variety of therapeutic applications, such as: relief from nausea, vomiting and appetite loss, reduction of pressure in the eye and muscle spasms, and relief from chronic pain. It is also proven to help with diseases like AIDS, Hepatitis C, Glaucoma, cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, and Epilepsy.

However, the bill has its opponents. Representative Bob Barrett, member of the Republican Party of Minnesota, discussed the cons.

“The issue of substance abuse is very real in our country-- real related to marijuana, hard drugs and alcohol,” Barrett said. “When I look at the issue, I think about all of the young folks who are unfortunately abusing drugs in our country.”

He discussed the severe negative consequences of using marijuana early in life that lead to  permanent issues with the brain, hindering the ability to learn, function and lead a productive life. Opponents also look at it from a policy perspective; the drug is illegal at a federal level whether the medical use is passed in Minnesota or not. Therefore, the discussion of rescheduling it should be taken from a federal perspective.

So what would it take to reschedule the drug anyways? Cody Wiberg, director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy explained the implications. This board is not a law enforcement agency, but has the power to make changes to substance schedules of a state by strict criteria.

“The board would have to find that marijuana has no abuse potential, cannot cause physical or psychological dependence, and would have to find that it has safe and accepted medical use,” Wiberg said. “The one that the board cannot find is that the drug has no potential for abuse.”

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