Medical marijuana legislation in limbo

Despite progress on the national front, legalization in Minnesota faces challenges.

by Kyle Potter

With the legislative session set to begin this week, the author of last yearâÄôs medical marijuana bill is sitting on the fence. Despite recent nationwide progress and the momentum of last yearâÄôs medical marijuana bill, Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said he and his colleagues are still discussing whether to try again this year or wait until 2011. Murphy, author of the bill in 2007 and 2009, said he doubts he will introduce another bill when the Legislature reconvenes Feb. 4. âÄúFor right now, it looks a little discouraging,âÄù he said. A medical marijuana bill passed through the Legislature last session but was vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Progress across the nation includes a new federal policy on marijuana. Last October, the Obama administration announced it would no longer prosecute marijuana users or distributors who are in compliance with their state laws. And earlier this month, New JerseyâÄôs governor signed a bill into law making it the 14th state to legalize medical marijuana. Murphy said he appreciated the recent developments but said the key to a successful bill is the support of the governor. âÄúWe need a governor who will sign the bill,âÄù Murphy said. Pawlenty said his signature would require the support of Minnesota law enforcement. Murphy said that may never happen. âÄúI donâÄôt know any high-jumper thatâÄôs going to get over the bar that heâÄôs setting,âÄù Murphy said of PawlentyâÄôs stance. âÄúAdrian Peterson couldnâÄôt jump over that thing.âÄù Murphy said he is content to wait until Pawlenty leaves office in 2011 to try advancing the legislation again. Other advocates for medical marijuana, like Heather Azzi, spokeswoman for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, are more open-minded about the future of the bill this session. Azzi said her organization has been trying to reach an agreement with local law enforcement on a bill that they can support. MCC is dedicated to protecting those terminally ill from prosecution and arrest for using marijuana. âÄúWe proved to them that this is going to happen,âÄù Azzi said. âÄúWe are hopeful that law enforcement recognizes that this may very well be their last opportunity to come to the table and work with us on the bill.âÄù Regardless of whether a bill is introduced this year, Azzi said MCC will be working with this yearâÄôs gubernatorial candidates to ensure that they will support medical marijuana legislation if elected. The University of Minnesota group Students for Sensible Drug Policy intends to help in that effort, said Zach Tauer, the board director and co-founder of the chapter. Tauer said his organization hopes to pressure law enforcement officials and encourage them to support such legislation. Tauer said he was not surprised to hear that a medical marijuana bill may not come up this year. âÄúItâÄôs too bad that Pawlenty is so persuaded by law enforcement and the attorneyâÄôs office,âÄù he said. Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said he was pleased to hear that Murphy may not try the bill again this year. Backstrom worked with the Minnesota Law Enforcement Coalition on a letter urging Pawlenty to veto last yearâÄôs bill, warning him of the dangers of marijuana. âÄúAllowing this use for medical purposes will result in more illegal marijuana use in our communities and will endanger the safety of our public,âÄù Backstrom said. Among his objections to last yearâÄôs bill, Backstrom said it provided no opportunity for oversight from law enforcement, the commissioner of health or the commissioner of public safety. âÄúThat is not acceptable,âÄù he said. Kurt Gardinier, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he would be disappointed if the issue was not reintroduced in Minnesota. Marijuana Policy Project is a national organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C., that works to reform both state and federal marijuana laws. âÄúClearly it has support in the state, House of Representatives and Senate,âÄù he said. Murphy will retire after this session, which means this is his last year to have a hand in the signing of the law. But Murphy is positive that it will happen, with or without his help. âÄúUnder any other administration, this would have already been law,âÄù he said.