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Marijuana bill clears judiciary panel

ST. PAUL -- A plan to give Minnesotans suffering from severe illness legal access to marijuana for pain relief narrowly passed a key Senate committee Tuesday despite concern the bill could spur illegal drug use.

ST. PAUL -- A plan to give Minnesotans suffering from severe illness legal access to marijuana for pain relief narrowly passed a key Senate committee Tuesday despite concern the bill could spur illegal drug use.

On a 5-4 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure allowing people with debilitating medical conditions to possess and smoke marijuana. The bill defines the medical conditions, how much marijuana someone could have in possession and the type of nonprofit group that could supply the drug.

"This is a proposal to provide a safe harbor for a very limited number of people," said Tom Lehman of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care. Those suffering from conditions such as cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and other diseases could seek a physician's recommendation for marijuana as a pain reliever.

An unusual coalition of DFL and Republican lawmakers supports the legislation. GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty opposes the bill.

However, Pawlenty has signaled the proposal could escape a gubernatorial veto if it is included in a larger bill, such as a health care package.

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Marijuana bill sponsor Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said that is how he will try to get the proposal into law.

Authorities and prosecutors urged the judiciary committee to reject the bill, arguing the measure would result in conflicting state and federal drug laws. They also warned it will lead to increased illegal marijuana use, particularly by children.

More people would be harmed than helped, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said.

"Marijuana is not a medicine. It's a dangerous and addictive drug," said Backstrom, president-elect of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.

Similar legislation is moving through the House, which like the Senate is controlled by Democrats. However, the Senate version no longer allows patients to grow their own marijuana, as was originally proposed.

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