Medical marijuana may soon be reality

March 02, 2007

Mark Brunswick, Star Tribune (MN)

A proposal that once inspired fears and jokes about drug abuse -- legalizing the use of marijuana for medical reasons -- stands a good chance of passage in the Minnesota Legislature this year.

Political support for that controversial step is coming from unlikely places. Advocates for a bill to allow seriously ill patients to use marijuana with their doctors' recommendation say that as many as half of the 49 Republicans in the House would support the measure in a floor vote.

Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, a Republican, is co-author of the medical marijuana bill and says he became a convert to the cause partly after being visited by two people who told him about how the drug would have benefited loved ones dying from cancer. And despite the concerns of social conservatives, other Republicans say they have come to view legalizing marijuana to help the sick as a quintessential conservative issue -- keeping government out of the patient- doctor relationship.

"Ten years ago it would have had no chance," Sviggum said. "Two years ago I probably would have been in opposition. This is a very emotional issue, but hopefully facts and information will come to the forefront."

Social conservative groups and law enforcement officials remain strongly opposed to the measure. But the emerging bipartisan support for it suggests the issue is traveling a well-worn path toward gradual acceptance blazed by other social causes -- sometimes toward liberalization, sometimes toward tougher restrictions.

Drunken driving, for decades considered a minor offense, now carries stiff penalties. Gambling, long frowned upon as a vice, now occupies a prominent and accepted place in society. Cigarette smoking, once widespread and glamorous, has been relegated to a furtive street-corner habit.

Medical use of marijuana has been approved in 11 states, despite federal efforts to pressure voters and legislators in those places to abandon the policies and conform to federal anti-drug laws.

Sviggum said he called law enforcement officials in three of the states where medical use of the drug is allowed and did additional research that has convinced him the new laws are working well. Politically, he also concedes he is impressed by poll results on the issue.

A 2005 Zogby poll, for example, showed that Minnesotans favored the use of medical marijuana by a 4 to 1 ratio. Meanwhile, a national AARP poll in 2005 showed that seniors favored the idea by a 2 to 1 ratio.

'Not a moral issue'

Champlin resident Tom Fonio, 55, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, says he is too afraid now to try marijuana to relieve the muscle spasms and burning sensation caused by the disease. He is prescribed a medication called Marinol but finds its benefits fade by the end of the day.

Shannon Pakonen, 41, of Brooklyn Park, who has Tourette's syndrome, said he obtains marijuana from friends and occasionally smokes it to relieve the ticks and spasms that result from the neurological disorder.

Both men support legalizing medical marijuana and see the political wind shifting.

"As time goes on, politics have changed. ... Partisan politics really take a back seat to the human issue. It is not a moral issue," Fonio said.

Pakonen, who said he would prefer marijuana over prescribed medications he takes now that leave him feeling lethargic and loopy, added: "The pot-head mentality, that's an older, antiquated generation that feels that way. The younger generation is starting to come into the fold. So many states are accepting it. ... I don't really have people who are down on me. I'm not a greasy grubby, go-nowhere person."

Conservatives divided

Despite the apparent legislative support, Gov. Tim Pawlenty remains adamantly opposed to the bill. He supports law enforcement contentions that lessening restrictions on any use of marijuana sends the wrong message, particularly to youngsters, according to his spokesman, Brian McClung.

Others, such as Eden Prairie Republican Sen. David Hann, question the science behind the medical claims for marijuana and worry about whether dosages can be effectively regulated.

During a Senate committee hearing, where the medical marijuana measure passed on a bipartisan voice vote, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom testified against the bill, saying it would facilitate use of the drug by others, increase the potential for impaired driving and give the impression that marijuana is harmless.

The measure is opposed by the state's County Attorneys Association, the Sheriffs' Association, and the Chiefs of Police Association.

"Marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug that poses significant health consequences. It has no proven medical value," Backstrom said.

The conservative Minnesota Family Council also opposes the bill, saying it could open the floodgates for relaxing other drug laws and lead to legalization of marijuana.

The group also has complained about the broad definitions of chronic illnesses that would be covered under the bill, claiming it could potentially authorize marijuana use for minor ailments such as tennis elbow or a sore knee.

The Family Council has pressed Andover Republican Chris DeLaForest to renounce the bill and take his name off as a co-author. He has refused.

"There's still a few of us left in the Republican Party who try to honor the concept of individual liberties as opposed to governmental interference. We've sort of been run over the past few years by members of the Christian wing of our base," DeLaForest said.

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636 • mbrunswick@startribune.com



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