MARSHALL - Calling Minnesotans a compassionate people, a lead official with a Minnesota group looking to legalize marijuana for medical purposes expressed optimism Thursday that the state is moving closer to someday passing a law that would allow those with serious illnesses access to marijuana if recommended by their doctor.
Heather Azzi, the political director for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, a group of organizations, medical professionals, patients and concerned citizens working to protect people with cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and other serious illnesses from arrest and imprisonment for using medical marijuana with their physicians' advice, said it's "very likely we will be getting the bill out of legislation next year."
The bipartisan bill to legalize medical marijuana was introduced at the Capitol on Thursday. Both the Senate and House bills have the maximum number of sponsors allowed - 35 in the House, including 12 committee chairs, and five in the Senate, including two committee chairs.
"A strong majority of Minnesota voters agree it is time to adopt legislation that allows seriously ill people to use medical marijuana if their doctors believe it will help treat their conditions and ease their suffering," said Azzi. "People suffering from diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis should be able to access medical marijuana safely and use it without fear of being arrested."
The legalization of marijuana could be an issue of when, not if. District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms said he thinks there is little chance of the bill advancing very far, at least not this year. The brakes are already being put on some key bills; the House on Wednesday announced it won't vote on any gun control bills this year, for example.
"If the bill was just introduced, since it's past deadline, that means it has to go through rules, and I would be very surprised if the Senate leadership would be willing to continue to accept more bills when we have less than three weeks left, and they're already behind the eight-ball," said Dahms. "We've got a lot of work to do and not many days left to do it."
Even in the long run, Dahms doesn't believe the votes will be there to get the bill passed.
"At first blush, I would think this is going to have a long road to go to get passed," said Dahms, R-Redwood Falls.
Dahms won't support legislation to legalize marijuana in Minnesota and said he would be surprised if it got very far when it comes before the Legislature in the future.
Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Minnesota voters support changing state law to allow people with serious and terminal illnesses to use medical marijuana if their doctors recommend it, according to a survey conducted in March by Public Policy Polling. Two-thirds said they think Gov. Mark Dayton should sign such a bill if it is approved by the Legislature.
District 16A Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, won't support the marijuana bill either. He said he's concerned about the effect it could have on young people.
"My concern is what's going on in other countries, other states that have done this - they've taken advantage of it," he said. "We've got decreasing rates in smoking among young people, decreasing rates of alcohol use and illegal drugs, but we're seeing a real amping up on the use of marijuana."
Swedzinski said new laws would be difficult to enforce and would blur the line between what's legal and what's illegal.
Nineteen states - a bill partially legalizing medical use of marijuana was signed into law in Maryland on Thursday - and the District of Columbia currently have laws on the books that allow patients with qualifying conditions to use medical marijuana with recommendations from their physicians. Similar legislation has been introduced in more than a dozen states this year.
"Minnesotans are very compassionate people," Azzi said. "We've had the support of much of the population for a very long time."
Azzi said the bill's main obstacle is Dayton. Dayton has said he's hesitant to relax the state's laws against marijuana and has deferred to law enforcement, saying he will honor the concerns of law enforcement when it comes to legalizing marijuana.
"This is an issue of compassion," Azzi said. "When laws fly in the face of common sense, then the laws should change, and Minnesota has the opportunity to do that now. Hopefully, we'll get it done."