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Marijuana bill clears judiciary committee

ST. PAUL -- A plan to give Minnesotans suffering from severe illness legal access to marijuana for pain relief narrowly passed a key Senate committee Tuesday night despite concern the bill could spur illegal drug use.

ST. PAUL -- A plan to give Minnesotans suffering from severe illness legal access to marijuana for pain relief narrowly passed a key Senate committee Tuesday night despite concern the bill could spur illegal drug use.

On a 5-4 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure allowing people with debilitating medical conditions to possess and smoke marijuana. The bill defines the medical conditions, how much marijuana someone could possess and the type of non-profit group that could supply the drug.

"This is a proposal to provide a safe harbor for a very limited number of people," said Tom Lehman of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care. Those suffering from conditions such as cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and other diseases could seek a physician's recommendation for marijuana as a pain reliever.

An unusual coalition of DFL and Republican lawmakers supports the legislation. GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty opposes the bill.

"Our position is the same as it has always been," Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said. "We stand with law enforcement in opposition to the bill."

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However, Pawlenty has signaled the proposal could escape a gubernatorial veto if it is included in a larger bill, such as a health care package.

Marijuana bill sponsor Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said that is how he will try to get the proposal into law.

Authorities and prosecutors urged the Judiciary Committee to reject the bill, arguing the measure would result in conflicting state and federal drug laws. They also warned it will lead to increased illegal marijuana use, particularly by children.

More people would be harmed than helped, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said.

"Marijuana is not a medicine. It's a dangerous and addictive drug," said Backstrom, president-elect of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.

Similar legislation is moving through the House, which like the Senate, is controlled by DFLers. However, the Senate version no longer allows patients to grow their own marijuana, as was originally proposed.

That and other changes weren't enough for DFL Sen. Mary Olson of Bemidji, who sided with all three committee Republicans opposing the bill. She questioned the amount of marijuana that could be grown and how the bill defines pain. She also worried patients with marijuana could be susceptible to theft.

Olson said she is sympathetic to people seeking pain relief, but "I'm concerned that in trying to deal with that, we're also going to be causing them to be victimized."

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Twelve other states have passed medical marijuana laws, supporters said.

Opponents only offered "conjecture and speculation" that permitting marijuana use for medicinal purposes will lead to more crime, Murphy told the committee.

"This is not going to open the door to have drug dealers on every corner selling big bags of marijuana," he said. "It's just not going to happen."

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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