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Session surprise: Medical marijuana bill passes

After years of hearings, a highly restrictive medical marijuana bill, which previously had been approved in the Senate, passed in the House last night.

After years of hearings, a highly restrictive medical marijuana bill, which previously had been passed in the Senate, passed in the House Monday evening on a vote that showed some issues aren’t partisan.

Most expect that Gov. Tim Pawlenty will veto the bill, despite the fact polls have shown has the support of most Minnesotans.

On the last night of a long, contentious session, the bill also had the support of a broad coalition of representatives, ranging from populists such as Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, to Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, who is one of the most conservative pols in St. Paul.

But opponents also crossed the political spectrum. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, was perhaps the most outspoken foe, but DFLers such as Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, also opposed the legislation.

Though legislators had spent most of their passion during battles to override Pawlenty vetoes, the marijuana bill did create some sparks, especially among foes.

<strong>Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano</strong>
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano

Emmer, for example, tried to add an amendment to the bill that would have changed the term “marijuana” to “pot.”

“Let’s call it what it is,” Emmer said, angrily. “Pot!”

Rukavina, the bill’s sponsor, responded with a putdown.

“Your amendment might be cute,” Rukavina said, “but I have to say the testimony on this bill was very powerful. At times, I think you’re pretty cute. But this isn’t one of them.”

“This is no joke,” Emmer stormed. “Call it what it is. It’s pot.”

Long debate followed, before the House passed the bill, 70-64.

Because the previously passed Senate version was amended on the House floor – an amendment that limits the use of marijuana to the dying – the bill was returned to the Senate, where it passed, 38-28, a higher margin than it had enjoyed previously.

Powerful testimony

How did a bill that in some form or another had been around since the 1980s sail through this time?

In part, there was the powerful testimony of people such as Jonie Whiting of Jordan. Earlier in the session, she’d told legislators of the last months of the life of her 26-year-old daughter, Stephanie, a mother of three.  She was dying of cancer, but her mother said, she was going to die of starvation before the cancer could kill her.  No traditional cancer treatments were allowing her daughter to take nourishment.

“I’m a child of the 1960s,” Whiting said, as she stood outside the House chamber before Monday night’s vote. “I’m squeaky clean, but my beautiful daughter was in agony. I went to her and said we were going to try marijuana. But I didn’t know where to turn. I called everybody I knew and left messages, ‘Do you know where I can get marijuana?’ The next morning, I got up and there was a pound of marijuana outside our front door.”

Laughing, she recalled that after her daughter’s death, she threw the leftover marijuana down the garbage disposal.

“I was afraid if I threw it on the yard, it might grow,” she said.

But very seriously, she said, the marijuana allowed her daughter to have 89 days – including Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2002 – to enjoy meals and have a decent quality of life before dying.

Whiting was filled with gratitude about the legislative action, but filled with doubt, too.

“I’m afraid this governor won’t do the right thing,” she said. “But I would hope he’d listen to the people. If I could talk to him, I’d say, ‘What crime is compassion?”’

Christopher DeLaForest, a lobbyist who supported the bill, says it’s presumptuous to assume Pawlenty will veto the bill.

“He’s assured people that he’ll give it careful consideration,” DeLaForest said.

Certainly, if Pawlenty looks at what happened in Michigan, where use of medical marijuana was on the ballot in November, he’ll want to consider the bill closely. Rukavina said that the bill passed in every Michigan county won by Republican presidential candidate John McCain and was even more popular than Barack Obama in counties carried by Obama.

“It just makes sense to people,” Rukavina said.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.