Marijuana bill passes in Senate

May 01, 2007

Associated Press, St. Cloud Times

A bill to legalize marijuana for those suffering from cancer, AIDS and persistent pain barely made it through the Minnesota Senate on Tuesday.

The bill passed on a preliminary vote of 33-31, after debate over the agonies of the sick and the danger of sending mixed messages to youths about illegal drugs. It needs at least 34 supporters to survive a final Senate vote.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but some severely ill patients say smoking pot is the only way to relieve their symptoms. Minnesota would become the 13th state to approve the drug for medical use if the bill became law — an unlikely scenario, given Gov. Tim Pawlenty's opposition.

The Senate proposal would grant immunity from state drug laws to patients with cancer, AIDS, wasting syndrome, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease or persistent pain that wasn't eased by other drugs. Their physicians would have to recommend marijuana in writing.

"This has the potential of helping hundreds and potentially thousands of families in Minnesota to deal with issues of pain and end-of-life issues," said Sen. Steve Murphy, the bill's sponsor.

Opponents warned that legalizing marijuana — even for the benefit of a small group — would make the drug more widely available and could have unintended consequences.

"Marijuana is going to be available in homes just like aspirin or other drugs on the shelf, even though we know that marijuana is often a gateway drug for young people that leads them into more serious drugs," said Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji.

"The kids know how to find alcohol in their parents' cabinets," said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen. "They'll find this marijuana."

Critics including Pawlenty said the bill would make it harder for police and sheriffs to enforce drug laws. The GOP governor said his opposition is based on their objections.

"They are concerned about it from a law enforcement standpoint as well as the message it sends to the public more broadly," Pawlenty said. "If law enforcement can get comfortable with the bill, I would consider it."

The bill also cleared the House Finance Committee on a 20-14 vote. The debate there was similar to the Senate's. The House version has one more panel to go before it reaches the floor.

"Marijuana is a gateway drug, plain and simple," said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder. "For those of you who think this has all the protections, you've got your head in the sand."

Rep. Tom Huntley, the bill's House sponsor, said the proposal was narrowly tailored for those with "chronic, consistent and intractable pain."

The bills would set up a registry for medical marijuana users, who would pay up to $100 for special identification cards from the state Health Department. Data on their identities would be private, but law enforcement could check whether a person was registered.

Lying to get a medical marijuana card would be a felony punishable with up to five years in prison and up to $10,000. Selling or giving away a card or medical marijuana would be punished under regular state drug laws — plus an extra penalty of up to two years in prison or $3,000.

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