Despite Senate support, marijuana bill is a long shot

April 30, 2007

Mark Brunswick, Star Tribune (MN)

In a historic vote that opponents said signaled a "cultural sea change" for Minnesota, a bill allowing patients to use medical marijuana won preliminary approval in the Minnesota Senate on Tuesday. The bill, which passed 33 to 31, would allow patients who qualify to possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana and to receive similar amounts on a regular basis from groups set up to dispense the drug.

The bill does not legalize marijuana. But it is in conflict with federal law, which makes the possession of marijuana illegal.

Doctors would recommend medical marijuana to patients but would not actually prescribe it under the bill. Twelve other states have medical-marijuana laws.

While it was the first time such a medical-marijuana bill has gotten to a vote on the floor of either the Senate or House in Minnesota, the closeness of the vote and a threatened veto by Gov. Tim Pawlenty make the bill a long shot to become law this year.

Nine DFLers, all but one from rural Minnesota, abandoned their caucus to vote against the measure, while two Republicans voted for it.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, the sponsor of the bill, acknowledged after the vote that he was surprised by the closeness of the margin but said he was still optimistic of final passage, even with the threatened veto.

"This is one of those moral issues, like abortion, where you can't argue if someone is on the other side," he said. "But I think enough people have come to believe in why its important.

"Is it for everybody? No. It's for those people who have a debilitating disease or pain that is intractable," Murphy added. "This has the potential of helping hundreds and potentially thousands of families across Minnesota in dealing with pain and end-of-life issues."

House vote also will be close

The measure requires patients to register and have a card issued by the Minnesota Department of Health. Non-profits can be established to grow and distribute the medical marijuana with up to 12 plants per patient.

Opponents suggested during debate that the bill could be part of an organized attempt to throw out all laws dealing with marijuana and that use of the drug would increase with the potential for abuse, particularly among the young. There were also concerns that the non-profits where the marijuana is grown could become targets for crime if they are set up as storefront operations, which the bill would allow.

"Some people believe that smoking marijuana is beneficial to them and relieves pain," said Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie, who described the measure as "very troubling."Marijuana is a dangerous drug. We have decided we are going to circumvent all those procedures used to handle dangerous drugs."

Tuesday's vote was preliminary, but the measure is expected to win final Senate approval, perhaps later this week. Its progress is the culmination of almost a decade of attempts by supporters to garner legislative approval.

A similar measure passed the House Finance Committee Tuesday and is headed to the House Ways and Means Committee before a possible floor vote. The vote in the House, which changed to a DFL-majority after the November election, is likely to be even more problematic for supporters than it was in the Senate.

Pawlenty has sympathized with objections to the proposal from law-enforcement groups and reiterated on Tuesday that he would veto a bill establishing medical marijuana if it does not contain provisions that are palatable to the law-enforcement community, even if the measure is part of a larger bill.

Patients who qualify would include those suffering debilitating conditions such as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS/HIV, Tourette's syndrome and intractable pain.

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








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