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Campaign to legalize medical pot in Minnesota underway

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Buoyed by public opinion polls shifting in their favor, medical marijuana advocates are lobbying state lawmakers to legalize the use of pot next year for people with serious illnesses.

"We have patients in Minnesota who are using medical marijuana because their doctor has advised it right now," said Heather Azzi, director of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care. "It's working for them when nothing else has, and these people are subject to arrest and imprisonment for doing nothing more than relieving their suffering."

But backers of medical pot face a major hurdle — winning the support of law enforcement. Traditionally, groups representing police officers, sheriffs and county attorneys have fought to defeat past proposals. In 2009, they successfully convinced then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty to veto a medical marijuana bill. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said in a statement that "the governor will not support any change in current law that does not have the full support of law enforcement."

Still, supporters are optimistic they can work out a compromise to address some of law enforcement's concerns. House bill sponsor Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said she is planning to meet with law enforcement representatives next month in hopes of finding common ground.

Melin said she wasn't always a supporter of medical marijuana. But after talking with patients and people in the medical community about it, she became convinced it can offer relief for some seriously ill people.


"It's just a matter of showing compassion and allowing doctors and patients to have the option to use medical marijuana," she said.

Bill's details

So far, 20 states and the District of Columbia have public medical marijuana programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Under Melin's bill, only patients with a "debilitating medical condition" such as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS and epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder could qualify for the program. Patients would have to have a doctor's prescription and would be limited to possessing 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana and growing 12 marijuana plants. Pot prescriptions could be filled only at state-licensed dispensaries. The bill would limit the number of dispensaries to one per county and three in the seven-county metro area. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

House Health and Human Services Policy Committee Chairwoman Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, is a co-sponsor of the bill. While aware of law enforcement's concerns with medical marijuana, Liebling said, in the end, it is about treating patients.

"I don't think law enforcement should be making medical decisions. We have plenty of dangerous substances that are used legally, prescribed legally for medical conditions. And those are sometimes used illegally," she said. "I don't think we would deny an ill person the use of a medication because somebody else might misuse it."

Mayo Clinic did not return calls seeking comment on the use of marijuana for medical treatment.

Minnesota Sheriffs Association Executive Director Jim Franklin said his group has agreed to meet with Melin about her bill. He said his group has long had a position against medical marijuana, arguing it could lead to increased crime and drug abuse while hurting law enforcement's ability to investigate illegal marijuana operations.

"I've had over 40 years of law enforcement experience, and I have yet to find drug users that didn't start off with cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and then into drug addiction," he said.


Gubernatorial issue

Medical marijuana is one of the rare issues of the Capitol that does not break down along party lines. That became evident during a recent Republican gubernatorial forum in Rochester. The five candidates were asked whether they would be willing to sign a bill legalizing marijuana. Hibbing teacher Rob Farnsworth, Sen. Dave Thompson and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson all said "yes." Wayzata businessman Scott Honour and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers said "no."

Byron Republican Rep. Duane Quam said a small but consistent group of people have been sending him emails urging him to support medical marijuana. At this point, he said he is open to supporting it as long as it is very tightly controlled.

"I've got an open mind to a well-controlled, reasonable medical marijuana bill," he said. I don't think that we really need to do a full-blown legalization in the state of Minnesota."

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