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Medical marijuana: A politically risky vote?

Legislation that would allow the medical use of marijuana by chronically and terminally ill patients was sent to the Minnesota House floor Wednesday, setting up a prolonged floor debate and a politically sensitive vote in the final weeks of the legi

Legislation that would allow the medical use of marijuana by chronically and terminally ill patients was sent to the Minnesota House floor Wednesday, setting up a prolonged floor debate and a politically sensitive vote in the final weeks of the legislative session.

The Ways and Means Committee approved the bill on a 13-4 vote. Backers don’t expect the final House vote to be so lopsided, but that it will squeak through and go to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has all but promised a veto.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, chief House sponsor, acknowledges that in an election year when all House members must run, it could be a tough vote for some of his colleagues.  “Sure, it could be used against you,” he said. Incumbents who support the bill could face charges by opponents suggesting they are soft on drugs.

Not to worry, said Tom Lehman, a lobbyist for health care organizations, including the Marijuana Policy Project and Minnesotans for Compassionate Care. Twelve states have passed medical marijuana laws and no legislator in those states has ever been defeated for his or her vote on that particular piece of legislation. “That’s fact,” said Lehman. “It’s a good vote in an election year.”

‘Great opportunity for abuse’
But law enforcement and county prosecutors don’t like the prospect of licensed dealers selling pot based on medical prescriptions written by doctors. “It’s just poor policy to begin with,” said Harlan Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. It is estimated 5,200 non-profit agencies eventually would be licensed in Minnesota to dispense medical marijuana. “There’s a great opportunity for abuse,” he said.

Johnson’s association is joined in opposition to the legislation by the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. Those organizations can be influential during political campaigns, endorsing candidates and making their positions public.

And those organizations have Pawlenty’s ear, according to Michael Campion, the governor’s commissioner of Public Safety. When law enforcement changes its mind, the governor will consider supporting the legislation. “He hasn’t changed his position since last year,” Campion said following Wednesday’s committee vote.

Lobbyist Lehman still holds hope he and others can convince the Republican governor to sign the bill. “There’s bipartisan support that stretches across Minnesota for allowing patients and physicians to make treatment decisions,” he said. So signing the bill would be popular with a majority of Minnesotans, according to Lehman, a political plus for a governor who many expect will run for a third term in 2010.

It also would be a political plus if Pawlenty were to become the vice presidential running mate of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, according to Lehman, “especially if you’re a conservative who’s running on the principle that physicians and patients should make [health care] decisions, not government.”

Backers of the bill don’t purport that smoking marijuana cures any disease. But they say it provides relief from pain and nausea and can stimulate appetite. The legislation would allow pot to be grown under controlled conditions which would include licensing and inspection.  It would be available to a limited number of chronically ill through prescriptions from doctors.

This is the second consecutive year the bill has been considered by legislators. Last year, the measure was approved by the full Senate. It also had several hearings in House committees where advocates testified for it. “Some of the people who came last year have died already,” Rep. Huntley said Wednesday.