Medical marijuana bills curling through Legislature

April 22, 2007

T.W. Budig, ECM Newspapers (MN)

Medical marijuana bills are curling through the Legislature, a Senate bill last week clearing yet another committee. But state law enforcement opposes the legislation.

And their support is critical.

Medical marijuana initiative has advanced previous sessions but never so far.

Supporters depict the illegal drug as offering pain relief to the terminally ill and those afflicted with chronic pain.

A number of state health care organizations, including the Minnesota Nurses Association and Minnesota AIDS Project, support access to medical marijuana.

The legislation boasts bipartisan support — representatives Chris DeLaForest, R-Andover, Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, and Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, back the House bill.

The Senate bill is authored by Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Redwing, and has the backing of Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, Health and Human Services Finance Committee chair, and a powerful figure in the Senate DFL caucus.

The House bill, too, carries clout.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, House Health Care and Human Services Finance Committee chair, is the House author and the bill has the backing of former House Speaker Rep. Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, friend of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, Minnesota County Attorney Association president-elect, has repeatedly testified at the Capitol in opposition to the medical marijuana legislation.

Marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug — a federal Schedule I Controlled Substance, he testified.

Many other medical substitutes — one product derived from marijuana — can be used to control the symptoms medical marijuana is suppose to alleviate, he argued.

“The simple fact of the matter is that this law will harm more people than it helps,” he said.

The bill creates a “safe haven” for drug abuse, Backstrom opined.

Bill critics have characterized marijuana as a “gateway” drug, one easing the step of drug abuse from one to the next.

But backers argues there’s no evidence that legalizing medical marijuana increases crime.

They’ve indicated in committee that perhaps 200 Minnesotans — a number critics cite as vastly underestimated — might be prescribed medical marijuana should the bill becomes law.

Senate bill author Murphy backhanded the “gateway” drug argument in committee..

A recovering alcoholic, Murphy said alcohol, not marijuana, is the real gateway drug.

“We legalized the biggest gateway drug,” he said of alcohol.

Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, spoke of the wisdom of legislation such as medical marijuana coming up from the grassroots.

“I don’t mean to make a joke about that,” Ropes, a nurse, said in Senate committee, of the unintended pun.

Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, in committee said he respectfully disagreed with Backstrom.

DeLaForest, a conservative Republican, is comfortable backing medical marijuana.

“I think medical marijuana is a conservative issue,” he said.

In states that have legalized medical marijuana, and things have gone fine, said DeLaForest.

Minnesota would have strictest medical marijuana laws in the nation, said DeLaForest.

The medical marijuana initiative, he opined, is an example of the laboratories of the state at work.

And there’s the human element.

“What about compassion?” DeLaForest asked.

Another conservative Republican lawmaker, Rep. Tom Hackbarth of Cedar, is coauthoring the House bill.

He’s witnessed too many of his friends and relatives die of cancer, Hackbarth explained..

“That’s why I signed up on the bill. And that’s the only reason,” he said.

Hackbarth said some of the friends and relatives he lost — Minnesotans — used medical marijuana during their illness.

“Of course it’s illegal — but ya,” he said of the use.

Pawlenty wants a positive consensus among state law enforcement on medical marijuana before he’d be willing to sign a bill.

But that doesn’t seem likely to happen soon.

Bill Gillespie, of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association — an association with about 8,500 members — explained the association does not support the legislation.

They’re cops and they don’t compromise on principles, an association newsletter reads concerning medical marijuana.

“(There’s) no room for movement,” said Gillespie of the association’s stance on medical marijuana.

Backstrom, too, suggests an unbridgeable gulf between backers of medical marijuana and the law enforcement community.

“There’s no way the bill can be changed for the county attorneys’ association to support it or for state law enforcement to support it,” he said.

Law enforcement opposes the bill.

They will not be neutral on it, he said.

If the bill passes the Legislature, Backstrom hopes the governor will veto it.

Law enforcement is sympathetic to the suffering of people in pain, Backstrom explained.

“Many of us have seen our friends and family suffering,” said Backstrom of the victims of cancer or HIV.

But medical marijuana is not the solution, he opined.

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