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Medical marijuana debate revived

Medical marijuana advocate Joni Whiting of Jordan tells senators Wednesday that the drug helped her daughter cope with the pain of cancer and that other Minnesotans suffering from chronic illnesses should have the opportunity to legally use the drug as a pain reliever.

ST. PAUL - George Wagoner said all it took was two breaths of marijuana smoke and his wife could cope with the pain of terminal ovarian cancer.

"She received dramatic relief," said Wagoner, a Michigan physician and medical marijuana advocate.

Ryan Rasmussen said he is recovering from a troubled lifestyle that started when he smoked marijuana, which led him to dabble in a stronger street narcotic and criminal behavior.

"Legalizing medical pot will cause more crime, not less crime," the 28-year-old Burnsville man warned.

The two sides of the medical marijuana debate lined up Wednesday for another legislative fight as lawmakers said this is the year Minnesota will permit use of the drug as a pain reliever for people suffering from certain illnesses.

"This is about compassionate health care," bill author Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said.

Like in past years, law enforcement organizations are leading the opposition, warning the drug will get into the wrong hands, but are backed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. A spokesman said the governor continues to oppose the legislation.

Bill supporters said they hope Pawlenty changes his mind after learning more about the legislation. Similar laws in other states have not led to increased criminal behavior, they said.

Law enforcement officers are sympathetic to people suffering from chronic pain, but oppose medicinal marijuana in part because it has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, said Harlan Johnson of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.

The legislation allows people with a "debilitating medical condition" - such as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS or other chronic diseases - to legally possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana if they obtain a government registration card and a prescription.

Murphy convinced the Senate to support similar legislation in 2007, but the effort stalled in the House amid opposition from law enforcement.

"There is more than enough regulation in here and more than enough penalties that I think takes care of their concerns," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, who is sponsoring the House bill this year. His first committee hearing is later this month.

The legislation makes it a felony for patients to sell or give away the drug or their registration card that allows them to possess medical marijuana. It also requires criminal background checks for caregivers and prohibits the use of marijuana in public places and where it could be inhaled by a child.

The Senate bill's first stop was a largely receptive Health, Housing and Family Security Committee. Sen. Yvonne Prettner-Solon, DFL-Duluth, said she watched her husband suffer with cancer before he died seven years ago. She succeeded him in the Senate.

"We're talking about end-of-life issues, a last resort for people suffering," she said.

Republican Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie echoed other opponents when he said medical marijuana needs more research.

Supporters are hoping tearful testimony from the relatives of people who suffered from chronic illnesses will help their cause.

Joni Whiting of Jordan cried as she told senators about her daughter's struggle against skin cancer. Whiting said she initially refused to allow her ill daughter to use marijuana, but later allowed it after seeing that it helped relieve pain. Whiting said her daughter died in 2003.

"What would you have done had you been in my shoes?" Whiting asked. "Could you sleep at night when your child was screaming in pain?"