Minnesota Senate agrees to let the seriously ill smoke pot

Illegal? Maybe not.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but some severely ill patients say smoking pot is the only way to relieve their symptoms. Minnesota would become the 13th state to approve the drug for medical use if the bill became law.
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Advocates want Minnesota to become the 13th state to allow the use of medical marijuana, even though such use is still against federal law. The Senate proposal would grant immunity from state drug laws to approved patients.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, says thousands of Minnesotans could potentially benefit from the alternative treatment.

"We're not saying it's for everybody. It's for those people who have debilitating disease or pain that is intractable, which mean it's been at least six months through other drug therapies that haven't worked. Then the doctor could write a written authorization so that they could get medicinal marijuana," Murphy said.

Under the bill, patients could possess no more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana at one time. They could receive 2.5 ounces from their primary caregiver every 15 days. Several professional health care organizations are backing the measure. Most law enforcement groups are opposed.

"There will be drugs in the front seats of cars. There will be drugs in the drawers at nursing homes," Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen. "Our grandparents will have drugs. Aunts and uncles will have two-and-a-half ounces of marijuana. The kids already know now how to find the alcohol in their parents cabinets. They'll find this marijuana. It's a gateway drug."

Some of the people who would benefit directly from the medical marijuana bill were at the Capitol to watch the Senate vote.

Already using
Shannon Pakonen, of Brooklyn Park, suffers from Tourette Syndrome and is already using marijuana for medicinal purposes
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Shannon Pakonen, of Brooklyn Park, suffers from Tourette Syndrome and admits he's already using marijuana for medicinal purposes. Pakonen says traditional medication leaves him in a zombie-like state.

"Smoking a little marijuana or ingestion of a little marijuana has more calming affect," he said. "It doesn't put you into that state of total psychosis where you can't think, you can't operate, you can't function. By adding marijuana instead of Haloperidol, it's helped me lead a more productive life."

The House version of the bill is also making progress. Earlier in the day, the House Finance Committee approved the measure on a 20-to-14 vote.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, says the House and Senate bills include several protections to prevent the illegal possession or use of medical marijuana. He says patients would not be allowed to grow their own.

"The marijuana would only be grown by what's called a registered organization," Huntley said. "It would be registered at the Department of Health. The individual that had the prescription from a physician would have to get a card from the Department of Health as well to show that he was legally authorized this in his possession."

Opponents in the House are also concerned about the marijuana falling into the wrong hands.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, says criminals will find a way to take advantage of the law.

"All the pot heads out there that smoke this for fun are probably in glee knowing that there's one more way they can get their hands on it now, just an inch way into this," he said.

The legislation now goes to the Ways and Means Committee, its last stop before the House floor.

Gov. Pawlenty says he stands with law enforcement in opposition to the bill. But Sen. Murphy say he'll try to protect the measure from a veto by rolling it into the larger health and human services finance bill later this week.