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Zaiser not leading drive for medical marijuana

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FARGO — The chairman of the last attempt to get marijuana legalized for medical use in North Dakota says he can’t get fired up about leading another effort anytime soon, even as the debate promises to light up the Minnesota Legislature in February.

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Steve Zaiser, a Democratic state representative for Fargo’s District 21, said the 2012 attempt, which was ended by a petition-signature fraud scandal, left him burned out.

“I have no intent on doing that,” Zaiser said. “That was an exhausting — frustrating as well — experience.”

Other members of the sponsoring committee, including John Helgeland and Brandon Wald of Fargo, have heard no rumblings about renewed attempts to get the medical marijuana issue back in front of voters.

But at least one man is ready to jump into the fray again.

“I’d be willing to sponsor it again. You bet. Absolutely!” said Del Snavely of Crosby.

Snavely said he’s been fighting to get marijuana legalized for medical use here since 2006, when he moved to North Dakota from Washington state.

“Most people here are ready for it. It’s time to just get it over with,” said Snavely, who is active in online discussions at www.medicalcannabisnd. proboards.com.

He said it will take a strong leader from one of the state’s major cities to get the issue to voters, particularly after the disappointment of 2012.

“It just seemed like the whole thing died. I can tell you, there were a lot of (angry) people.”

Zaiser said the current Legislature is too deeply conservative to offer a realistic chance of getting a medical marijuana bill out of committee and onto the floor for a vote.

Even if that did happen, Zaiser harbors no illusions about the outcome of such a vote. He said he’d probably get pounded in the loss, with perhaps one or two other legislators supporting the initiative.

The best hope for getting medical marijuana approved is to have it passed through the initiative process, Zaiser said.

“I do think it would have a chance. I’d say 50-50 to pass, through an initiative with the people, just the public, voting on it,” he said.

Minnesota lawmakers are expected to take up the medical marijuana issue when the Legislature opens for business Feb. 25.

Bills by Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, that were carried over from the 2013 session will then get their first hearings.

There appears to be popular support for a medical marijuana law in Minnesota.

A St. Cloud State University survey released this month found that 76 percent of Minnesotans polled favored legalizing medical marijuana, while 20 percent opposed it and 4 percent did not have a stance.

The survey, conducted Oct. 20-27, found a less favorable buzz among those polled on whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

The poll found 46 percent favored recreational marijuana, with 48 percent against. Six percent did not have a stance.

A medical marijuana bill cleared the Minnesota Legislature in 2009, but it was vetoed by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton isn’t exactly high on seeing medical marijuana approved, either.

Dayton told reporters Tuesday in a Capitol briefing that he still opposes legalizing pot for medical use, the Pioneer Press reported online.

Dayton said he would sign a bill legalizing medical marijuana only if opponents in the law enforcement community agree to support it, the Pioneer Press reported.

Dayton reportedly said that because there are still questions to be answered – including defining who needs marijuana for medical use, the cost and how to control distribution of the drug — he doesn’t believe the issue will be decided in 2014.

Dayton said he doesn’t want to consider the issue until 2015, the Pioneer Press reported.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia now allow the medical use of marijuana.

The states are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Colorado and Washington are the only states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

In May 2012, Zaiser submitted an initiative to make using and growing marijuana for medical purposes legal in North Dakota.

The proposal called for allowing patients diagnosed with debilitating illnesses, such as cancer, glaucoma or Alzheimer’s disease, to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana at a time.

Use in public was not to be allowed, and the proposed law set strict limits for growing medical pot.

The petition needed 13,452 signatures by Aug. 8 to make it on the November general election ballot.

Supporters of the initiative turned in about 20,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office in early August.

The initiative was upended when it was determined that many of the signatures on petitions for the medical marijuana initiative, as well as for a separate petition drive, were forged.

Fifteen people involved in collecting signatures for both petitions were eventually charged in the case.

But the damage was done. The medical marijuana initiative didn’t have enough verifiably valid signatures to get on the fall ballot.

Does Zaiser close the door completely to leading another drive for medical marijuana?

Not completely.

“Maybe someday, someday I might do it. Who knows? But I’m not going to do it for this coming session,” he said.

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Helmut Schmidt
Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.
(701) 241-5583
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