Legislators prepare to present marijuana bill in next session

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Standing behind a graphic photo of a young woman whose face was being eaten by cancer, medical marijuana supporters last spring spoke of renewing efforts at passing a bill this session.

Joni Whiting, of Jordan, with a photo of her late daughter, Stephanie Whiting Stradinger, a cancer victim, taped to the podium, spoke at a press conference last spring in favor of legalizing medical marijuana in Minnesota. Standing behind Whiting is Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, who is carrying medical marijuana legislation. To the right of Melin is Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, bill co-author and believer in the therapeutic value of medical marijuana. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Joni Whiting, of Jordan, with a photo of her late daughter, Stephanie Whiting Stradinger, a cancer victim, taped to the podium, spoke at a press conference last spring in favor of legalizing medical marijuana in Minnesota. Standing behind Whiting is Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, who is carrying medical marijuana legislation. To the right of Melin is Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, bill co-author and believer in the therapeutic value of medical marijuana. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

“My feeling is we can get it (the bill) out of the House,” Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, a House medical marijuana bill co-author, recently said.

Advocates such as Joni Whiting, of Jordan, whose late daughter, Stephanie Whiting Stradinger, was the facial melanoma victim, insists medical marijuana offers therapeutic benefits to patients, such as pain relief, found nowhere else.

Hackbarth, whose co-authorship illustrates the bipartisan nature of the debate, witnessed the use of medical marijuana as a high school student when a friend’s mother, seriously ill, regained appetite and strength by using marijuana medicinally, he said.

“I’ve seen it kind of first hand. It helped her,” Hackbarth said.

Twenty states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, according to ProCon.org.

In 2009, a medical marijuana bill cleared the Minnesota Legislature but was vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Like Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, Pawlenty looked to state law enforcement officials for direction on medical marijuana.

There’s time to “dig in” and see what’s possible with the issues, Dayton recently said.

“We’re three months away from the session, thank goodness,” he said, smiling.

Dayton is willing to have staff work on the medical marijuana issue. Still, Heather Azzi, political director for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, a pro-medical marijuana group, indicated Dayton remains a question mark.

“We don’t know where he stands,” Azzi said.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, medical marijuana bill co-author, wore this button on his jacket at the press conference. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, medical marijuana bill co-author, wore this button on his jacket at the press conference. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Getting law enforcement to sign-off, or even be neutral on medical marijuana, will be difficult, perhaps impossible.

“We could not support any bill that proposes the legalization of marijuana for any purpose,” Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Dave Pecchia said in an email.

Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, House medical marijuana bill author, speaks of “blanket opposition” among state law enforcement toward medical marijuana.

“So that concerns me greatly,” Melin said.

She become interested in carrying medical marijuana legislation, Melin said, after learning of a family in her district whose 7-year-old daughter suffers from Dravet syndrome. The child suffers as many as 400 seizures a month, Melin said, and the first time her parents heard her utter a sound for many weeks was when she began to cry after breaking her arm in three places, with bone jutting through the skin, in a condition-related mishap.

Dravet syndrome is a rare and “catastrophic” form of epilepsy that begins in infancy, according to the Dravet Syndrome Foundation. Without the advent of better treatment, individuals with Dravet syndrome face a diminished quality of life, the foundation notes.

One medical marijuana strain pioneered in Colorado, dubbed “Charlotte’s Web” – and low in THC, the chemical agent creating a “high” – may show promise in treating Dravet syndrome.

Melin doesn’t want to see parents of children with Dravet syndrome need to flee Minnesota to seek treatment for their child.

Dayton is a compassionate man, she said.

“I just have to believe he will come around,” Melin said.

In Colorado, a state with about the same population as Minnesota, voters approved medical marijuana against the objections of law enforcement. Lance Clem, public information officer for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said the biggest state law enforcement controversy related to medical marijuana was probably over impaired driving.

Colorado Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Irene Aguilar, a primary care doctor and Denver Democrat, describes Colorado’s experience with medical marijuana as a story of before and after.

In January 2009, the Colorado Public Health and Environment Department reported 6,369 new applications for state medical marijuana Registry ID cards since the beginning of the program in June 2001.

In March 2009, the Obama Administration announced federal law enforcement officials would no longer raid medical marijuana clubs operating under state law.

Colorado took notice. By January 2010, state officials reported that 55,469 new applications had been submitted to the registry since its inception.

“The number of applications increased dramatically,” Aguilar said.

In September 2013, Colorado health officials reported 234,406 new patient applications, with the total number of patients possessing valid Registry ID cards at 112,862.

Aguilar is “skeptical” that the applicant increase — with the jump in young males, for instance — wholly reflects legitimate medical need. She believes some applicants are working the system to obtain marijuana. But pain is hard to quantify, she said, and any program can be abused.

Severe pain accounts for 94 percent of all reported conditions by patients in card applications in Colorado, with muscle spasms the second-most reported. The average age of the patients is 42 years old.

Melin described her bill as being similar to legislation approved in Michigan and Vermont.

Melin, an attorney, her father and a brother in law enforcement, heralds the perceived teeth in her legislation. If a marijuana dispensary or agent transfers marijuana for anything of value to a person other than a qualifying patient, that’s a felony charge under the bill.

But beyond believing they have tightly written legislation, medical marijuana supporters question why law enforcement should have a say in a decision that supporters perceive as a medical issue.

Minnesota medical marijuana supporters could sidestep the Governor’s Office and put the question of legalizing medical marijuana directly to voters in the form of a constitutional amendment. Of the 20 states that have legalized medical marijuana, 11 did so through ballot initiative, according to ProCon.org.

Hackbarth and Melin believe Minnesotans would likely approve such a constitutional amendment.

But Hackbarth doesn’t like the idea of going that route. Lawmakers are sent to the State Capitol to make decisions, Hackbarth said, so they should make them.

Melin, though, indicating a constitutional amendment remains an option, would rather avoid it. For one thing, even if the amendment would pass, lawmakers would still need to write legislation afterward, she explained.

Melin is “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects of her bill.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is carrying medical marijuana legislation in the Senate. Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, is a bill co-author.

The Minnesota Medical Association takes no position on medical marijuana.

 

Tim Budig is at [email protected].

(Editor’s note: Read Lakeville resident Kathy Rippentrop’s story of her mother’s battle with cancer, with the use of marijuana, here.)

 

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