ST. PAUL, Minn. - The political battle over medical marijuana will unfold in the 2014 session, but backers introduced their bills Thursday to get the conversation started early.
"That's the goal, to get people on board, and talk about it over the summer," Rep. Tom Hackbarth, a Republican from Cedar, told reporters at the State Capitol.
"I think we're going to gain a lot of support, both on the Republican side and on the DFL side."
Hackbarth said that his wife is terminally ill. And, although she is not using medical marijuana, he knows that people in her situation must go to great lengths to manage their pain.
"Qualify of life is what it's all about, and that's what we're talking about here in those final days," Hackbarth said.
The bills, House File 1818 and Senate File 1641, would provide legal protection for those patients who have medical marijuana prescribed by their doctors. The drug would have to be dispensed by a pharmacy approved by the Dept. of Health.
"The Commissioner of Health will have discretion to determine how many dispensaries will be licensed and regulated around the state," Heather Azzi, the political director of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, explained.
She said she didn't expect this version of the law to come into conflict with federal laws policed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
"They do not typically come into states and arrest and prosecute individuals, especially patients who are using marijuana pursuant to a doctor's recommendation," Azzi said. "They simply do not have the resources to do that."
Nationally 18 states and the District of Columbia allow doctors to prescribe the drug to patients who qualify for it. Bills are pending in 14 states, including Minnesota.
Backers feel bolstered by an opinion poll conducted in March by Public Policy Polling, showing that two-thirds of Minnesotans support Medical marijuana.
The first hurdle the bill's sponsors must overcome is the perception the drug would fall into the wrong hands or be over-prescribed, as it has been in some of the states where medical marijuana is already legal.
"I think this is going to be one of the most restrictive laws in the country," said Rep. Carly Melin, a Hibbing Democrat.
"It's going to be very well regulated with a very limited scope on the dispensaries and which patients even qualify for medical marijuana."
The last time medical marijuana made it as far as the governor's office was 2009. Then-Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed the bill, citing concerns by law enforcement.
Governor Mark Dayton has also been cool to the idea in the past, saying that law enforcement community's objections to the idea make it problematic.
"Law enforcement is supposed to enforce the law," Patrick McClellan, a supporter of the bill, told KARE. "In my opinion, right now they are making the law."
The Burnsville man takes 26 pills each day to control the effects of mitochondrial myopathy, a rare, genetic muscular disorder that causes severe, painful spasms.
"It's similar to a Charlie horse, but instead having it just in your thigh, it's in your thigh, your shin, your feet, your tendons under your knees, your legs, your abdominal muscles all simultaneously."
McClellan said he has experimented with medical marijuana, just to find out how it performs compared to his traditional medication.
He said the marijuana was able to ward off the onset of severe muscle spasm every time. He said the emergency supply of legal drugs he wears in a small vial on a necklace work part of the time.
Joni Whiting of Jordan said marijuana, in the smoked form, was the only thing that muted the pain and nausea her daughter Stephanie encountered while dying from myeloma in 2003.
The cancer attacked Stephanie's face and she underwent more than ten operations to remove the cancerous tissue.
"The pain she was experiencing was unimaginable, and the nausea was so severe that it became difficult for her to eat," Whiting told reporters. "That was when a doctor at the hospital pulled me aside and told me that Stephanie might benefit from using marijuana."
As an ardent opponent of illegal drugs Whiting resisted the idea at first, so her other children took Stephanie out of the house to someone who gave her marijuana.
"When she came back three days later she looked better than I had seen her in months," Whiting recalled. "It did keep her alive for another 89 days. It helped her to be able to eat for 89 more days."
Whiting, who is now raising Stephanie's three children, said she's frustrated to hear that Gov. Dayton is yielding to law enforcement's views on the issue.
"I say it's his responsibility to lead, and it's law enforcement's responsibility to do what he says!" said Whiting.
The legislation provides a list of debilitating medical conditions that would qualify for marijuana therapy, including cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, hepatitis C, Tourette's syndrome, ALS and post-traumatic stress disorder.
It also covers a list of symptoms that may result for chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy and Crohn's disease, or from the drugs used to treat those maladies.
That group of symptoms include wasting syndrome, seizures, severe, debilitating pain, severe nausea and persistent severe muscle spasms.
(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)