By Christopher Snowbeck

The Minnesota Senate on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to join more than 20 other states and legalize medical marijuana.

In a bipartisan 48-18 vote, lawmakers approved a bill that would allow patients with certain health conditions to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana for medical use.

The patients would need a doctor's recommendation and a state-issued ID card to obtain the marijuana from a proposed statewide network of up to 55 dispensaries.

Meanwhile Tuesday, a state House committee approved a more limited bill calling for more research into the use of medical marijuana. A floor vote is expected Friday.

Both pieces of legislation ban smoking marijuana and would allow patients to use marijuana in the form of pills, oil and vapor. Law enforcement groups are neutral on the House bill, but have opposed the legislation in the Senate.

Gov. Mark Dayton has pushed for a compromise that responds to law enforcement concerns.

"We're asking in this case to allow Minnesotans the same freedom that citizens of more than 20 other states have, in the name of compassion," said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and chief sponsor of the Senate bill.

He said some patients need medical marijuana because they lack good treatment options for their conditions.

Several legislative hearings this spring have featured emotional testimony from parents of children with seizure disorders. Those parents say medical cannabis offers relief for their children that isn't provided by government-approved drugs, adding that marijuana in liquid form does so with fewer risks.

In 2009, Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a medical marijuana bill passed by the Legislature. At that time, cannabis wasn't being used for many children with seizure disorders.

Dibble's bill would provide access to patients diagnosed with any of seven conditions including cancer, AIDS and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Patients also could use the drug to deal with intractable pain, severe nausea and seizures.

"The alternative is for them to go without, or to access medical cannabis on the illegal market ... and entertain tremendous legal risk to themselves," Dibble said.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said he sympathizes with parents seeking help for their children, but he opposes Dibble's bill.

Legalized medical marijuana is a "baby-step" toward full legalization of marijuana in Minnesota, Ingebrigtsen said.

"I've seen the devastation of this drug when used and abused," he said. The bill sends "the wrong message to our children," Ingebrigtsen said.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said more research is needed into medical marijuana's risks and benefits before the state allows its use. She called Dibble's bill "premature."

"We know the scientific information is not there," Nelson said. Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she feared medical marijuana would be used for reasons other than its intended use.

But Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said his vote for the bill was a response to families in need -- and in no way signals support for legalization of recreational marijuana.

Federal regulations have effectively blocked research studies on medical marijuana for years, Dibble said. Those waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to approve cannabis are effectively telling patients "you're going to wait forever," he said.

Bill supporter Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, argued that doctors and patients are better situated than legislators to address questions about which patients should get access to medical marijuana.

"For God's sake, if people are suffering and we have the ability to provide a way to alleviate that pain -- let's hear their concern, let's hear their prayer," said Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood. The Senate vote came several hours after the House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill from Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, calling for medical marijuana studies that would be open to a smaller group of patients.

With support last week from House leaders, Melin announced a bill that would have launched state-sponsored clinical trials of medical marijuana. But with an amendment passed Tuesday in committee, the legislation now calls for observational studies that are less costly, Melin said, and won't direct some patients to receive placebos.

The change is important for doctors. Under the bill announced last week, physicians would have been asked to dispense marijuana -- something prohibited by federal rules, according to the Minnesota Medical Association.

As amended Tuesday, the bill would have doctors certify that a patient has one of several qualifying conditions, and the patient would apply to be part of a registry at the Minnesota Department of Health. Patients in the registry could obtain medical marijuana from a pharmacist employed by the cannabis manufacturer.

The state Health Commissioner would determine a range of chemical compositions in marijuana plants that would likely be beneficial for a patient, including a range of recommended doses for each condition.

The Health Department estimates it would need the equivalent of 9.5 full-time employees to regulate the new system. The marijuana manufacturer would pay fees; patients would pay $200 per year to be part of the registry, with a discounted rate available for low-income residents.

About $2.9 million would be needed from the state general fund for the year ending June 2015, and another $2 million over the following two years.

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