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Medical marijuana bill advances

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen

ST. PAUL - Senators voted Monday to allow seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana to ease their pain.

After the 35-29 vote, attention on the topic now turns to the House, which has not passed the medical marijuana measure in past years.

Senator Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said marijuana is a safe way to help those in extreme pain. "In the known written history of the world, no one has died of an overdose of marijuana."

But Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen, a former Douglas County sheriff, opposed the measure, saying that allowing people to grow marijuana would make them victims of criminals who wanted to steal the plants.

The Alexandria Republican said the 12 plants a patient is allowed to grow would be worth $67,000 in illegal sales.

"Kids are watching to see what the Minnesota Legislature is going to do," Ingebrigtsen said. "We're on the wrong path."

The bill allows doctors to authorize marijuana use only for some illnesses. They could grow their own or buy up to 2.5 ounces from approved growers.

Ingebrigtsen sent a letter to Governor Tim Pawlenty, urging him to veto the bill.

"My career in law enforcement has demonstrated to me, firsthand, that marijuana today is not the harmless drug many people perceive it to be," Ingebrigtsen wrote, "and I'm worried about the message this will send to our young people. If our society equates marijuana with just another painkiller, you send the message to our youth that they're doing nothing more than abusing over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin or Tylenol, and nothing could be further from the truth."

Before Monday's final vote, Ingebrigtsen described the measure as "a lot of smoke cover for starting down the path to legalizing drugs."

Federal authorities approve more pain medicines each year, Ingebrigtsen said, so marijuana is needed less all the time.

"It is going to be a law enforcement nightmare," he added.

An informal online poll on the Echo Press website found a split opinion on the issue. The poll asked, "Should Minnesota legalize marijuana for medical use?"

A total of 35.98 percent of the 592 respondents said, "No" while 35.64 percent said, "Yes, with few or no restrictions," and 25.34 percent said, "Yes, but only for tightly controlled purposes." About 3 percent were unsure/undecided.

An online story about Ingebrigtsen's attempts to stop the measure also drew a spirited debate.

One commenter, Erica S., said marijuana should be allowed for medical patients. "Bill [Ingebrigtsen], I hope that you never have to know how much medical marijuana can help you," she said. "For many cancer and HIV/AIDS patients and other illnesses, smoking marijuana is the only way they can deal with the pain, eat something and be able to keep it down. I've seen it used both ways. But when it is used in a medical way, the benefits far outweigh looking at the negative of how others that don't need it can get a hold of it."

Other online commenters shared Ingebrigtsen's concerns. Stella W. put it this way: "Folks, no matter what you think of using marijuana, it is against federal law. That part needs to be fixed and this bill needs to be written very well before we can think of loosening up state laws. Unlike some people, Senator Ingebrigtsen sees the whole issue and doesn't make decisions based on emotion. Although I would like to see it available to really sick people, I think he made the most reasonable decision as things stand now."

Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I controlled narcotic substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

The classification, Ingebrigtsen said in his letter to the governor, means the drug is considered to "having a very high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacking accepted safety data for use under medical supervision."

"There are many recovering addicts who will tell you that marijuana is a gateway drug and will lead to further abusive behavior on the part of individuals who begin its use," said Ingebrigtsen.

Thirteen states have legalized marijuana for medical use.

"There is a national push to legalize drugs and drug activists are using the so-called medical benefits of marijuana to further their agenda," Ingebrigtsen said. "Minnesota would be irresponsible to allow its citizens to fall into this trap."

The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) position states that no sound scientific studies have supported the medical use of marijuana. For patients wishing to alleviate the symptoms associated with the illnesses, the FDA has approved a drug, Marinol, which contain the active ingredients in marijuana.

"This legislation also places our law enforcement officers in a very difficult position with respect to enforcing drug laws," Ingebrigtsen wrote in his letter. "The way this law is written, an individual can grow up to 12 plants and possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana. These are extremely large quantities for a single person to have and would make it nearly impossible for cops and law enforcement to curb the flow of marijuana."

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The AlexaEcho Echo Press also contributed to this story.