Drug counselors worry as medical marijuana movement grows

Los Angeles To Not Enforce Ban On Marijuana Dispen
Marijuana plants grow at not-for-profit medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles.
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Supporters of legalizing medical marijuana in Minnesota were loud and vocal last week at the Capitol, arguing that a bill moving through the state Senate would help people with terminal or debilitating illnesses.

But as that bill gets another Senate hearing Tuesday, quieter voices are rising in opposition. People who run drug treatment programs in Minnesota worry that opening the door to any form of legal marijuana will cause many more problems and could lead to greater abuse.

•Previously: Advocates continue push for medical marijuana bill

"It's almost like a train and nothing is going to stop it," Mark Casagrande, executive director of the drug treatment facility Park Avenue Center in Minneapolis, said of the legislative push here and across the country.

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Casagrande, president-elect of the Minnesota Association of Resources for Recovery and Chemical Health (MAARCH), said the organization opposes legalizing marijuana and would support medical marijuana only if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it.

That hasn't happened yet, leaving Casagrande to worry that Minnesota lawmakers may join 21 other states and legalize medical marijuana without knowing whether it works as a treatment.

Mark Casagrande
Mark Casagrande is the executive director of Park Avenue Center, a drug and alcohol treatment center, in Minneapolis, Minn.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

"My fear is by simply passing it we're not going to be looking at those clearly," he said. "We're not going to weigh the benefits versus the consequences in a scientific based manner."

Drug treatment professionals and the medical community have given little public testimony on the medical marijuana bill in the Legislature, though they have joined law enforcement groups in opposing it.

Casagrande is one of several drug treatment counselors who say marijuana has been devastating to those who abuse it. He said it should be viewed skeptically as medicine.

Others in his profession say those concerns should be tempered with compassion.

•Related: Medical marijuana debate puts spotlight on law enforcement's political influence

Karen Edens, current president of MAARCH, says there's dissension in the chemical health community over how to approach the bill.

"My God, if a kid is dying from multiple seizures a day and this is going to give that child some relief, compassion would say is there any way we can work around that?"

Edens, however, said there is concern that legalizing medical marijuana could prompt more people to seek bogus prescriptions to gain access to drug.

Backers of medical marijuana are careful to say they're not pushing for allowing recreational use.

Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said marijuana could help people with seizure disorders or multiple sclerosis and that those patients shouldn't be punished because some people abuse it.

"Just because there are alcoholics, we don't take alcohol away from everybody else," Melin said. "Just because some people abuse prescription pain medications, we don't take pain medications away from those who are in pain and really need it, and I see it the same as medical marijuana."

Gov. Mark Dayton, who opposes legalizing medical marijuana, said one of his concerns is that it could make the drug more widespread in Minnesota.

He proposed a Mayo Clinic-backed study to help children with seizure disorders, but parents of sick children who want to give them medical marijuana rejected that idea. They say it didn't work in other states.

•Related: Minn. physicians ponder medical marijuana

Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, is also concerned about loosening restrictions on marijuana. Eaton, who says she's been sober for 30 years, lost her 23-year-old daughter to a heroin overdose in 2007.

Eaton said she worries that legalizing medical marijuana will only lead to full-blown legalization that could increase addiction and lead to other social ills.

"There are some people who can probably use it recreationally without harming them," she said. "But I don't know if the tradeoff is worth it."