A bare majority of Minnesotans say the state should legalize medical marijuana.

According to a new Star Trib­une Minnesota poll, 51 percent of Minnesotans support legalization for medicinal uses, while 41 percent oppose a change in state drug laws. Twenty states, plus the District of Columbia, already allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for a range of medical conditions, from cancer to epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is pushing for Minnesota to follow suit when the Legislature returns to work at the end of this month, but those lawmakers will encounter substantial resistance. Opponents of legalization, which include virtually every major law enforcement group in the state, fear that wider access to marijuana will hurt more people than it helps.

The poll also found that Minnesotans' support for legalization has its limits — 63 percent oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Only 30 percent thought the state should follow the example of Colorado and Washington, two states that recently opted for full legalization.

Some sick Minnesotans aren't waiting for the Legislature to act or the poll numbers to come in.

Patrick McClellan of Burnsville treats his muscular dystrophy with marijuana. It's an illegal drug, but it's the best way he's found to ease the severe, violent muscle spasms that sometimes hit him like a full-body charley horse. He's been prescribed plenty of legal treatments — he takes 26 different pills a day — but none of them ease the spasms as quickly and effectively, he says.

"It was drilled into my head when I was a kid that [marijuana was] bad, evil," said McClellan, a 47-year-old chef. He first tried marijuana several years ago, after a particularly bad attack left him trapped between his bed and the walls of his bedroom for hours, in agony and unable to move, until his wife came home. When he told his doctors of his experience with marijuana, "they were not surprised. My neurologist told me, 'It's not going to hurt you. A lot of people find the same results. If it helps, do it.' "

Minnesota decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana years ago. If police did raid McClellan's house, he would face at most a petty misdemeanor charge. Legislation proposed in the Minnesota House and Senate would legalize medical dispensaries, one per county and more in large urban areas, where patients like McClellan could go to have marijuana prescriptions filled if they didn't want to grow their own marijuana plants at home.

Support and opposition to medical marijuana ranges across political lines — a number of Republicans at the Legislature have lined up to support DFL-sponsored legalization bills in the House and Senate, while DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has expressed strong reservations about legalizing medical marijuana as long as law enforcement opposes the idea.

Divisions in the poll were more stark, with 77 percent of Democrats in favor of medical marijuana and 17 percent opposed, compared to just 23 percent of Republicans who backed the idea and 69 percent who opposed it. Political independents split on the issue, with 44 percent in favor of medical marijuana and 47 percent opposed.

Among those who favor legalization for recreational use, only one group eked out a majority. Among Democrats, 54 percent support full legalization. But that was offset by overwhelming opposition from Republicans, at 86 percent. Only 19 percent of independents support full legalization.

Even among younger Minnesotans, ages 18 to 34, nearly half oppose legalizing pot for nonmedical use. Opposition is strong in Hennepin and Ramsey counties at 51 percent and even stronger outstate, where 71 percent oppose it.

Few admit to smoking pot

Support for medical marijuana legalization was highest among Democrats, younger voters, more-affluent voters, and among people who have tried pot themselves.

Minnesotans remain squeamish about admitting to personal pot use. Only 26 percent of those polled admitted to ever using marijuana, while 69 percent said they had not. Among Minnesotans over age 65 — which would include many who came of age during the 1960s and '70s — 90 percent said they had never tried marijuana. In outstate Minnesota, 71 percent said they have never used the drug.

"I'm the older generation," said Jeanette Johnson, a recent retiree who lives in Lonsdale. "I don't like drugs or smoking. … You just kind of wonder what the world's coming to. I think it leads to more drugs; kids starting at a young age with marijuana, getting high. There's a possibility it does help with medical issues, but once it's legalized and you get a lot of people smoking, it's just not a good situation."

Among those who said they have tried the drug, 76 percent supported medical marijuana legalization and 61 percent backed recreational legalization.

Legalization of medical marijuana passed the House and Senate in 2009 but was vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Rather than risk another gubernatorial veto, House sponsor Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said she and other lawmakers are trying to hammer out a short-term compromise with law enforcement — possibly a bill that would legalize only the nonnarcotic marijuana strain used to treat children with seizure disorders.

Melin said she sees legalization of medical marijuana as inevitable, given that 21 states already have done so. "I don't see why we keep pushing it off when we could just get it done and get it right," she said.

Greg Adams is one Minnesotan who would love to see his state follow Colorado's example and legalize recreational marijuana.

"I'm so tired of the hypocrisy of choosing which drugs should be legal and which should be illegal. Alcohol's the poster child for that," said Adams, who felt strongly enough about the issue to join Minnesota's chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Alcohol's an extremely dangerous drug, as everyone knows, and then you have mari­juana, which is really a pretty benign drug, which causes almost no social ills and some social benefits, yet it's illegal. I don't know how people can live with the hypocrisy of that."

If Minnesota's marijuana laws don't change, Adams is considering a move to Colorado after he retires.

"I'm tired of being viewed as a criminal just because I smoke marijuana," he said. "I'll live someplace where I'm not a criminal."

The poll surveyed 800 Minnesota adults between Feb. 10 and 12 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Three-fourths were reached through a land line, one fourth by cellphone. It included 39 percent Democrats, 30 percent Republicans and 26 percent of Minnesotans who said they were independent or identify with another party.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049