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Continued: Will Minnesota be next to legalize medical marijuana?

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 26, 2014 - 6:58 AM

Lines at pot dispensaries are long, prices are astronomical and shopkeepers have the giddy air of home-brew enthusiasts opening their first microbrewery. Readers of the Denver Post can check out bong reviews, the “Strain of the Day” and even get recipes for a “marijuana-enhanced” sour cream coffee cake.

Demand like that is what worries Minnesota law enforcement. While many are sympathetic to families with suffering loved ones, they say that medical marijuana is a system easy to abuse and tough to regulate.

They noted in a position paper to the state that of the 108,000 people in Colorado seeking medical marijuana in 2012, more than 90 percent of prescriptions were to treat nonspecific conditions like “pain relief.”

Their staunch opposition has kept marijuana classified in the same category as drugs like heroin and LSD. Every year about 9,000 people are arrested in Minnesota for sale or possession of marijuana, making up more than half of all narcotics arrests in the state. In 2004, the state decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, with anything under 1.5 ounces considered a petty misdemeanor. However, amounts over that remain a felony offense, carrying up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. A push to legalize medical marijuana passed the Minnesota House and Senate in 2009, but was stopped by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who vetoed the bill with law enforcement’s support.

“This is a situation where both proponents and opponents have strong arguments on their respective sides,” Dayton said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of negating one set of concerns or the other. It’s trying to strike a balance and decide what’s in the overall public interest.”

Dayton said he’s aware of the bill that will come before the Legislature this session, but he said passage is doubtful unless common ground is forged between the two sides — something he said is unlikely in a short session.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, would legalize medical marijuana for a broad range of conditions, with doctors’ approval. Patients could possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. An ounce of marijuana can yield as many as 50 joints. Patients could grow as many as a dozen marijuana plants of their own or buy the product from a licensed dispensary — one per county, or more in large urban areas like the Twin Cities.

The state would use application and licensing fees to help offset the estimated $250,000 needed to monitor and regulate medical marijuana in the first year.

Michigan, which legalized medical marijuana in 2008, spent $4 million to administer its program last year but collected more than $10 million in fees from the more than 130,000 people who applied.

Melin says she is unfazed by opponents and is being inundated by calls and letters from families who desperately want access to the drug for their sick and dying loved ones.

An obligation to help

“Even if every single cop in the state was opposed to it … when I’m sick, I go to the doctor. I don’t go to the police department,” Melin said.

Not every cop is opposed to legalization. One of Melin’s co-sponsors is state Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, a police officer who has worked in narcotics enforcement.

“There’s far more abuse — and life-altering abuse — with prescription drugs than there is with marijuana in any way, shape or form,” said Schoen, who has watched friends and relatives go through agonizing chemotherapy treatments that made it hard to say no when other families approached him about legalization.

“When you see people suffer, and they don’t need to, I think there’s an obligation when you’re a public servant, whether you’re a police officer or [a lawmaker to say] ‘How can I help?’ ”

Schoen said he is confident the legislation has enough safeguards to keep medical marijuana out of the wrong hands, and he hopes the law enforcement groups will meet with lawmakers to discuss ways to improve the bill.

Younger users pose a problem

But the prospect of doctors writing prescriptions for marijuana troubles Dr. Carrie Borchardt, a Minnesota child and adolescent psychiatrist who spends her days working with teens whose lives have been derailed by drug addiction.

  • drug arrests in 2012

    11,969 for marijuana

    1,775 for opium/cocaine

    3,859 for other dangerous drugs

    1,028 for synthetic drugs

    Source: Minnesota Department of Public Safety Uniform Crime Report

    House and Senate bills

    Pending bills would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for chronic or debilitating conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder. The state would issue patients or caregivers a card allowing up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana or up to 12 plants growing in an enclosed, locked facility. Marijuana could be purchased at licensed dispensaries – one per county or more in large urban areas.

    Minnesota Marijuana penalties

    Quantity Charge Potential penalty

    100 kilograms+ 1st degree drug crime/felony 30 years prison, $1 million fine

    50 kilograms+ 2nd degree drug crime/felony 25 years prison, $500,000 fine

    10 kilograms+ 3rd degree drug crime/ felony 20 years prison, $250,000 fine

    42.5 grams to 10 kilograms 5th degree drug crime/felony 5 years prison, $10,000 fine

    Less than 42.5 grams Petty misdemeanor $200 fine, drug education

    Source: Minnesota Statutes §152

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