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Medical marijuana bill gathers steam at the Capitol; Pawlenty has threatened veto

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news Morris, 56267

Morris Minnesota 607 Pacific Avenue 56267

WILLMAR -- Dan Hartog doesn't look forward to the hassles that law enforcement officials predict will happen if the medical use of marijuana is legalized in Minnesota.

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"Who's overseeing it? What's the control on it?" wondered Hartog, the Kandiyohi County Sheriff.

Jim Kulset, Willmar Police Chief, is concerned about the impact if a medical marijuana bill, currently working its way through the Legislature, passes this year.

"I think you open up a whole can of worms with it," he said.

But Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said he's heard from numerous constituents, many of them with chronic disease, who support the measure.

For some people, it might be the only treatment that relieves their pain or allows them to eat, said Juhnke, who's a co-author of the bill. "This is one of those things that will help."

After repeated tries in the past few years, a bill to legalize medical marijuana is moving forward at the state Capitol. As of Friday, a House version of the bill had been approved by the Public Safety Policy and Oversight Committee and was headed towards a hearing by the Finance Committee.

In the Senate, a companion bill is awaiting action by the Senate Finance Committee.

The legislation would create a system for people with debilitating diseases or conditions, such as cancer, glaucoma or HIV, to legally obtain and use marijuana to relieve their symptoms. It also would regulate who can produce and distribute marijuana for medical use.

Thirteen other states already allow the medical use of marijuana.

It's a contentious issue. Law enforcement professionals in Minnesota are vigorously opposed to it, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he'll veto the measure if it's passed. The Minnesota Medical Association has backed away from the debate altogether, opting not to take an official position.

Local law enforcement officials say the bill is bad public policy that could create a public safety risk if it becomes law.

"There's this perception out there that weed doesn't hurt anything," Kulset said.

Many of those now serving time on drug charges got their start with marijuana, he said. "It's a gateway drug."

Boyd Beccue, Kandiyohi County Attorney, is concerned about the enforcement problems that could result if medical marijuana is legalized.

"It's going to render enforcement extremely difficult," he said. "People are going to claim, 'That's my medical marijuana.'"

Law enforcement officials say the legalization of medical marijuana also will undermine the anti-drug and anti-tobacco messages that many organizations strive to promote among kids.

"It just sends the wrong message, to youngsters in particular," Beccue said. "It tells young kids, 'Hey, this is OK, marijuana is medicine.' Everyone's trying to keep kids off drugs. This guts everything parents are doing at home. I don't believe there's a single prosecutor or a single law enforcement officer in the state of Minnesota who supports this."

Many in law enforcement believe the real issue is the legalization of all marijuana use.

Beccue calls the medical marijuana bill "the nose of the camel slipping under the edge of the tent."

"If that's the discussion, let's have the discussion," Kulset agreed. "Let's be frank about it. Let's put the cards right on the table."

Local officials said they're not insensitive to the needs of people who might be helped by medical marijuana.

"We're sympathetic to the fact that there's people that have pain, but there are other drugs out there that they can take," Hartog said.

Juhnke said lawmakers are aware of these concerns and have tried to craft a bill that contains safeguards to address them.

"This isn't going out and being able to harvest ditch weed and smoke it," he said. "It's a tightly drawn, well-drafted bill."

Although state law enforcement organizations have testified against the bill several times, many patients and families also have weighed in to support the measure, and Juhnke said he's listening seriously to them.

"This isn't being done in a vacuum down here. There is support," he said. "To me, the realm is a medical realm. It's not a law enforcement realm. The discretion should be to the doctor and patient. I'm not making that decision for either of these two entities but rather leaving that up to them."

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