Medical pot bill moves ahead

March 23, 2006

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger, Pioneer Press (MN)

The bill's language is steeped in technical words — registered organization, primary supplier, qualifying patient — but what it really represents is the best chance chronically ill or dying Minnesotans have had to get medical marijuana without breaking state law.

On Thursday, it received a nod — but not a glowing endorsement — from the Senate crime prevention committee. Advocates have pushed such a measure for years, but for the first time, it might actually receive a full Senate floor vote this year.

And, as was clear from Thursday's committee hearing, the medical marijuana movement has changed from one backed by people wearing hemp sweaters and advocating full legalization of cannabis to one taken seriously by medical professionals and lawmakers. In the past decade, 11 states have approved allowing medical marijuana in some form.

In Minnesota, gubernatorial candidate Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, is the measure's chief sponsor at the Capitol. And at the hearing Thursday, he received backup from four ailing people who told senators that using marijuana has provided them relief when nothing else would.

Among them was Irvin Rosenfeld of Florida, who has the federal government's permission to use marijuana for his congenital cartilaginous exostosis, a bone disease that causes tumor growth, muscle spasms and a lot of pain. In fact, the feds provide him his pot.

"I am not a criminal. I did not ask for my bone disease," said Rosenfeld, who brought his federally supplied tin of marijuana to the crime committee. Later, he smoked his drug on the steps of the state Capitol for television cameras.

Kyoto Nakamuru has lupus and a host of multisyllabic, extraordinarily painful diseases.

"Marijuana is the only medication I have found to be effective in preventing my focal seizures and neurogenic pains, simultaneously creating an appetite, calming my anxiety and easing my arthritic pains," she said. "Wanting a quality of life that is truly worth waking up for each morning makes me a criminal in the eyes of the state."

Opponents of the bill said they were moved by such stories, but their sympathy didn't convert them to the wisdom of the bill.

"The enforcement issue, from our perspective, would be a nightmare," said Bemidji Police Chief Bruce Preece, who represented the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association at the hearing.

The bill gives primary suppliers permission to grow 12 marijuana plants per qualified patient. Each plant, Preece said, can produce about 1 pound of marijuana a year. That much pot would be worth $4,000 to $5,000 on the street, he said. That means a primary supplier, who would be allowed to provide for five patients, would be able to produce as much as $300,000 worth of pot without any law enforcement penalty.

The uncertainty about the measure caused some problems for senators. Five of them voted to move the bill on to the Senate Finance Committee but did so without their endorsement. Four senators opposed it.

The measure needs to win finance committee approval before it can receive a full Senate vote. Backers said they are optimistic it will be approved by the Senate.

But the measure has not yet won any support from the Minnesota House. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he does not support legalizing medical marijuana.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger can be reached at rstassen-berger@pioneerpress.com.



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