Monday, February 12, 2007

Sviggum clarifies marijuana bill

By Mike Longaecker, Forum Communications Co.
Published Monday, February 12, 2007

ST. PAUL – Rep. Steve Sviggum wants to make it clear: He’s not trying to turn Minnesota into Amsterdam.
But after almost 30 years in the Legislature, the Kenyon Republican is part of an increasingly diverse political crowd pushing to make medical marijuana legal for patients with chronic or debilitating diseases.

“This is not legalizing drugs,” Sviggum said of a bill that would add Minnesota to a list of 11 states that have enacted medical marijuana legislation. “I would never support or be on a bill to legalize drugs.”

It is, however, a departure for the former House speaker.

An opponent to similar legislation in the past, it wasn’t until last year that Sviggum talked with lawmakers from outside the state who built a convincing case that got him on board.

Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, Minn., House speaker. “I just felt that this was a decent thing to support,” he says of bill.
Since then, he said he’s learned how the drug provides relief for cancer and AIDS patients suffering excruciating pain.
Under the bill, qualifying patients would be issued an identification card from the state that would allow them to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. Doctors and registered nurses would be allowed to make the diagnosis.

“I just felt that this was a decent thing to support,” Sviggum said.

A Senate health committee will hear the bill today, and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said she expected a House committee to hear it at some point, too.

The medical marijuana legislation could see passage in the House and Senate, top lawmakers said Friday.

“I suspect that there probably is a majority,” Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, said of support in her chamber.

Efforts to decriminalize pot in Minnesota for medical use are gaining strength in the Legislature, proponents said.

“It’s wildly popular,” said Neal Levine, director of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care. “This is not a heavily DFL urban bill. This is a real balanced piece of legislation.”

But balance doesn’t mean all lawmakers are turning a new leaf.

Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, hadn’t yet looked at the bill, but said he knows where he stands.

“I’ll be against it.”

Vickerman fears medical marijuana could open the door for criminals to exploit the system.

“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said, “and they’ll figure it out.”

The House bill, authored by Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, has four Republican co-authors, including Rep. Larry Howes, of Walker, and Sviggum. Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, co-sponsors the bill in the Senate.

GOP legislators in January received a letter from a group called Republicans for Compassionate Access. The letter urges party members to support legislation for people “whose only crime is attempting to alleviate, with their doctor’s approval, the pain and suffering caused by life threatening illnesses.”

A push for medical marijuana likely would go up in smoke, though, if a bill lands on Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s desk, his spokesman said.

The governor sides with “law enforcement, who have consistently opposed this bill and feel like it makes both enforcement more difficult and sends the wrong message to kids in particular,” Communications Director Brian McClung said.

But that’s unfair, said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, who’s championing the bill in the Senate. The argument that legalized medical marijuana would make it harder for police to do their jobs is “completely untrue,” he said.

“I would hope that they’d reserve judgment on it,” until such a system goes into practice, Murphy said.

While Champlin, Minn., resident Tom Fonio is hoping the same, he said he’s not holding his breath this will be the year for a medical marijuana law.

“There is a stigma involved” with marijuana that’s too much for some politicians to overcome, he said.

Fonio said he suffers debilitating effects from multiple sclerosis and would use medical marijuana if it were legal. The medication he takes – Marinol – affords some of the painkilling effects of pot, but works inconsistently and disagrees with his stomach at times, the 55-year-old said.

Already lined up against the bill is the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, a group that has opposed earlier attempts to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

Sviggum said he knows that despite growing support from Republicans, the issue continues to stir up considerable controversy. He said he hopes dissenters will come around.

“If members were to vote only on the facts and not the perceived political consequences,” Sviggum hypothesized, “it would pass.”

Longaecker works for Forum Communications Co., which owns

The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or