Medical marijuana bill outlined, but debate waits
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Supporters of legalizing marijuana for medical use put their plan forward at Minnesota's Capitol on Thursday even though the major debate will wait until next year.
Leaders of the group Minnesotans for Compassionate Care said they are not expecting action on the proposal until the 2014 session. The current session is due to conclude in a few weeks. The bill could face an uphill push given long-standing opposition from Gov. Mark Dayton and law enforcement groups.
The measure dictates the amount of marijuana someone can possess, the types of health conditions that would permit use and the rules medical professionals must follow when issuing prescriptions. It would continue to bar smoking of marijuana on school buses and school grounds, on public transportation, in the presence of a child and while operating vehicles, boats or other transportation equipment.
Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said her bill "strikes the appropriate balance between compassion, health and safety." She said she hopes to persuade Dayton to keep an open mind as the legislation proceeds.
Patients who are prescribed the drug would have to get a special identification card, which would carry a fee ranging from $25 to $100. They would be allowed to carry 2.5 ounces of marijuana at a time. Qualifying debilitating medical conditions include cancer, glaucoma, AIDS and other serious illnesses.
Joni Whiting of Jordan, whose daughter used marijuana illegally in the final days of a long bout with cancer, said the drug was the only thing that reliably eased the pain.
"I would rather have spent the rest of my life in prison than deny her the medicine that helped her live for 89 more days," Whiting said at a news conference, where she taped a picture of her late daughter, Stephanie, to a podium. She added, "I saw with my own eyes that for medical purposes, marijuana works."
Marijuana dispensaries would have to pay a $15,000 registration fee, and there would be limits on the number that could operate in any county dependent on population.
Boosters have bipartisan support in both chambers, though considerably more Democrats are signed on as co-sponsors.
Minnesota lawmakers approved a medical marijuana bill in 2009. But then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the measure. Dayton has voiced opposition to legalization of marijuana for any use and said the medical protections have sometimes been a backdoor way for users to get access.
Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom, said the state shouldn't encourage drug use by making marijuana legal for medical reasons.
"The legalization of medical marijuana in Minnesota would only serve to make this gateway drug more accessible to our younger populations," he said.
The state's main law enforcement associations have long opposed any efforts to loosen the state's marijuana laws. Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, has called legalized drug possession "a regulatory and enforcement nightmare." Flaherty said he hadn't read the latest bill so he withheld reaction.
Democratic Rep. Dan Schoen, a Cottage Grove police officer who worked the narcotics unit for 4½ years, is a co-sponsor of the legislation. Initially a skeptic, he said watching a grandparent battle cancer helped change his mind on the issue. He said he believes the new proposal contains some of the strictest regulations in the country.
"If I see this vary in any way, shape or form to the point of full legalization, I will stand up in opposition," Schoen said.
Medical marijuana is legal in 18 states plus the District of Columbia, and similar efforts are underway in many more. Last month, the Illinois House narrowly approved a bill establishing a four-year pilot project; that bill awaits Senate action.