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​Medical Marijuana on the brink in Minnesota

by Chris Hennen | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | News | April 17th, 2014

Cover by Raul Gomez

Up in the air whether Minnesota will join other states in legalizing it this Legislative session

Minnesota medical marijuana supporters hoping the state would join the nationwide trend towards legalizing some form of marijuana may be in for a letdown, but hope is still there.

The Minnesota Legislature is currently on Easter break and following that break, sponsors of various medical marijuana bills stuck in committee will push for full votes on the measures in the House and Senate. If it gets to each of the full chambers, legislators on both sides of the issue told HPR it is likely to pass. However, because of opposition by both a coalition of law enforcement groups and the health community, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton seems likely to veto any bill. The Governor made a promise back in 2010 to cops and prosecutors to veto any medical marijuana bill if it didn’t have their support.

Nonetheless, Dayton’s position on the matter has seemed to soften as the session has progressed and as pressure has mounted, likely due to polls showing widespread support of medical marijuana by an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans and the advocacy of the parents of sick children.

But instead of passing a law, Dayton, law enforcement groups and the health community want a study of the issue done by the Mayo Clinic with trials for sick children, where Minnesota would look to other states that have legalized medical marijuana for further study, and then figure out the best way to get medicinal marijuana in the hands of those who really need it and test who it works best for.

Governor Dayton’s office released a statement to the High Plains Reader calling his plans for a study with trials the quickest and best compromise that can be achieved this year.

“If advocates agree to the compromise solution my administration has proposed – which I believe would provide their children with the medication and relief they need as quickly as possible – then something can be accomplished on this issue this session,” Governor Dayton said.

Supporters of medical marijuana, however, feel the issue has been studied enough and that is a way of kicking the can down the road. The next few weeks will be very critical as to whether a medical marijuana bill gets out of the committee, whether it gets passed by both chambers and if it does pass, and whether it gets vetoed by the Governor before the Legislative session is scheduled to end in mid May.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger is a board of directors member of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. They are opposed to the current versions of the medical marijuana bills on the House and Senate floors and will not support any bill that includes smokable medical marijuana.

An amendment to one of the bills prevents smokable use of medical marijuana. However, it has not passed yet and the others still allow some form of smokable marijuana for medical use. With the advent of vaporizing, supporters don’t see removal of the ability to legally smoke medicinal marijuana as something that may ultimately make these bills not worth passing. Though it seems likely that the only thing law enforcement would support this Legislative session is a study of the issue with trials.

“Let’s look at what is effective medically,” Ebinger told HPR. “We don’t tell people who need morphine for pain relief that they grow their own poppies and produce their own substance.

“There needs to be a pharmacological approach to this. If this is simply being used a mask to grow and distribute smokable marijuana in hopes to distribute it to people as we’ve seen in other states on a very thin pretext where there’s not a lot of accountability among physicians on how they authorize this, then it’s simply geared for recreational use. And if that’s what you want to do, let’s be honest about it, and let’s move forward and talk about recreational use of marijuana.”

Those hoping for Minnesota to follow in Colorado’s footsteps might want to think about how tough it has been to get medical marijuana passed in the state before they start setting up marijuana vending machines.

Ebinger said if this is really about a serious medical need, trials should be set up through the Department of Health for children with epilepsy suffering from seizures and other medical ailments to see if it’s effective.

However, the Moorhead Police Chief said there is no part of the medical community which sees smokable marijuana as either desirable or effective in helping people with serious medical issues. Parents of children with serious medical issues such as epilepsy have been the biggest advocates for medical marijuana this Legislative session and have kept pressure on the Governor and Legislators to get something passed.

“Characterizing the law enforcement coalition, the county attorneys, the public health officials, the Governor, the medical officials in Minnesota as being opposed to medical marijuana is a mischaracterization,” Ebinger said.

“What we want is responsible legislation that will actually track and even help develop effective medical use of marijuana not simply having something wide open so that a large amount of smokable marijuana can be produced and loosely regulated and controlled.”

From our region, State Representative Paul Marquart (DFL- Dilworth), chair of the Education Finance Committee, is on the same page as the Governor, citing law enforcement opposition. However, he did say he feels a medical marijuana bill will pass both chambers this session as it has in previous years, so he realizes he’s in the minority.

“Right now I am opposed,” Marquart told HPR. “I would vote no on the medical marijuana bill. And the main reason is I have the same concerns that law enforcement do on this as far as how do you regulate the use, how do you control the access. It’s kind of a slippery slope situation that could occur so I am opposed. I don’t see anything right now or any changes that would get me to support it.”

He said he has been focused on other issues this Legislative session.

“Quite frankly, I have heard very little on medical marijuana from my constituents. Just really hasn’t been an issue in my district that I can see and I just haven’t been contacted by that many constituents. So, to me, there is many, many more things that are much higher on my priority list,” Marquart said. ”So I am not really pushing for anything on the medical marijuana. The current proposal I see I would oppose, I would support a study. But it’s not something I am going to promote.”

State Representative Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) has been one of the biggest advocates for passing a medical marijuana bill passed this session. He is confident a majority of the House and Senate support a bill. However, he is unsure at this point whether or not they will get the bills out of committee, where he feels powerful interests are bottling it up.

“The current process is that the bill is stuck in committee in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are pushing to at least give the advocates of this a vote. So whether people are in favor or opposed to medical marijuana, I think we all agree that the families that would benefit from this medication at least deserve a vote on the House floor so people know where the elected officials stand,” Garofalo said.

He disagrees with Ebinger and others who say some are using the medical marijuana push as an effort to increase recreational use of marijuana in the state.

“The medical marijuana bill makes it clear that anyone who abuses their medical marijuana card is actually subject to greater penalties than if they were just using marijuana now. So it makes no sense that people would use this process for that,” Garofalo said.

“Second of all, in terms of a reason for opposing it, you could really make that argument in terms of any piece of legislation, whether it’s you cut taxes and eventually you are going to have a zero-percent tax rate and nothing to fund government. Or you could make that about any other host of issues. So at hand, this is a good bill that helps families who really will benefit from having this medication without having them to move to Colorado or another state to have access to it.”

Garofalo also does not support the Governor’s efforts to pass a study of the issue. Instead, the State Representative suggests a comprehensive medical marijuana bill.

“A study does not benefit half the children who are suffering from this because they are given a placebo -- they are given fake medication,” Garofalo said.

“In addition, this issue has been studied quite exhaustively in other states and other parts of the country, and so we know that this is a medication that has an effective basis of improving patients quality of life. And I think the best thing for us to do is to stand up and help these families out.”

Garofalo also feels that Dayton should less be concerned about individual groups and more about the majority support from individual Minnesotans.

One of the most active groups pushing for a medical marijuana bill to be passed is Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, who have been running advertising all over the state, prodding the Governor to support it.

Heather Azzi, Minnesotans for Compassionate Care’s political director, said those families who need medical marijuana shouldn’t have to wait until another Legislative session to be able use it legally.

“Seriously ill people should not be subject to arrest and criminal penalties for using medical marijuana,” she said to HPR. “People who benefit from medical marijuana should not have to wait. And in some cases they cannot wait for the right to use it legally. It’s incumbent upon us in Minnesota to take care of these people and not force them to move in a few months. They’ve been very public about what they need and what we’re going to force them to do to get it if we don’t solve this problem.”

Azzi said she is confident that there is enough time in the session left for a bill to pass and is optimistic that one of the versions will do so. She thinks they can garner Dayton’s support but not law enforcement groups’.

Kevin Shores is a Moorhead veteran who wants to be able to legally use medical marijuana to help deal with ailments following his time in military service. He is heading to the State Capitol in St. Paul on April 23 to rally with other medical marijuana advocates for a bill to be passed this Legislative session. Shores fears Legislators may end up passing a watered-down bill with so many restrictions that it doesn’t do what it set out to achieve.

“I am very afraid of this legislation,” Shores told HPR. “Because if it passes and if you watch the way trends work, you know it happens in California then it goes to New York and then it’s Minnesota. And then once Minnesota gets involved with it, then it sets precedent for the country. This bill for Minnesota is gonna be one of the most strict and I think over the top on the legalities of it. They made it really stringent as far as the form of it.”

Shores also feels the word “marijuana” has been demonized so much so that it is hurting the debate.

“My biggest issue is the whole argument of cannabis right now is called medical marijuana,” he said. “Marijuana is a derogatory term. Marijuana was used when we’re smoking this wacky tobacky and that’s what they called it and that’s where marijuana came from. They should go back and reword it and call it what it is, cannabis.”

Shores said he will pass along his concern that current bills aren’t very beneficial to most Minnesotans who need it at the rally at the State Capitol. He has issues with how the Governor has handled the matter.

“He is trying to please everybody instead of addressing the issue where cannabis has proven to help people on many different levels when it comes to medicinally or socially,” Shores said.

Shores said the debate could go either way this session. His biggest fear is that marijuana won’t become legal until Monsanto or the tobacco companies make the perfect cannabis seed.

With the Minnesota Legislature scheduled to wrap in mid May and debate in committee on medical marijuana bills set to resume following the Easter holiday break, now would be the best time to let your legislators and the Governor know how you feel on the matter.

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