State Senate gives medical marijuana tentative OK
April 30, 2007
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger, Pioneer Press (MN)
Minnesotans should be allowed to use marijuana if they're really sick or in excruciating pain, the state Senate decided in a preliminary vote Tuesday.
Go ahead, giggle. Make jokes about the munchies, dope, stoners and hippies.
Lawmakers themselves occasionally laughed as they've debated the measure giving suffering Minnesotans access to medical marijuana. Then, they got serious.
Proponents have talked about people with cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis, and people who live with intractable pain who could get some relief from smoking marijuana.
Opponents have talked about marijuana's role as a gateway drug, giving the state permission to break federal drug laws and the lack of scientifically tested dosages, strengths or drug interactions.
The state Senate took all that into account Tuesday and gave the measure preliminary approval on a 33-31 vote.
For final approval in the Senate, it will need at least 34 supporters. Two Senate supporters were absent Tuesday, said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing and the measure's chief sponsor.
The House may approve the measure next week. A House medical marijuana bill survived its fifth committee hearing Tuesday on a 20-14 vote and will have another hearing Friday.
Despite support in the Legislature, Minnesota probably won't become the 12th state to sanction medical marijuana use. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is against the bill and says he will veto it if it reaches his desk.
House co-sponsor and former Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, hopes that changes.
He said he believes Pawlenty, who Sviggum calls a friend, will see the light.
"I'm very convinced that this is an important bill to pass - from health care reform, from compassion, from the right thing to do without any great negative consequences," Sviggum said. "I just think the governor will see the same reasonableness as I have in the last couple of years on this issue."
But the governor's mind hasn't changed.
On Tuesday, Pawlenty said he will continue to stand with law enforcement in opposing the measure.
If the state's law enforcement community changes its tune, the governor said, he'd consider letting the measure become law.
"I don't think that's happened," Pawlenty said. "I'm not aware that the law enforcement community has changed its position."
Although the measure became stricter as it wended its way through Capitol committees, law enforcement officials have remained opposed. Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom has spoken against the measure time and again, and he has been joined by a host of police officers in uniform.
Their testimony has held some sway.
"This is going to be a nightmare. It is going to be a law enforcement nightmare," Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria and a retired Douglas County sheriff, told his Senate colleagues Tuesday.
But the needs of patients like Tom Fonio held more power for others.
Fonio, of Champlin, is 55 and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1983. He had nearly two decades of good years but five or six years ago, his disease took hold.
Now, he has trouble walking far and is often in deep, deep pain. "It is like having really nasty burns all over your body," Fonio said.
He's now taking Marinol, the FDA-approved drug that contains a synthetic version of the active ingredient in marijuana. That helps sometimes, but he wants the chance to try marijuana.
"Here's a drug that has been around since before the birth of Jesus and has been used effectively for relief of pain and such, but still they are saying the research isn't in," he said.
Even if it became law, the measure the Senate considered Tuesday wouldn't make it easy for patients to get marijuana:
If all the rules set out in the measure were followed, those dealing with medical marijuana would be immune to civil and criminal prosecution for their involvement. They could be still convicted under federal drug laws.
But if those involved violate the provisions set out in the measure, they would be penalized more harshly than current state drug laws outline.
Last month, the Health Department estimated that 6,100 patients would participate in the program if it were fully up and running.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger can be reached at email@example.com.