When will medical marijuana be legal in Minnesota?

An unlikely coalition stands poised to fight for legalization of the natural remedy

When will medical marijuana be legal in Minnesota?
E. Katie Holm
Kurtis Hanna, board member of Minnesota NORML

Joni Whiting runs a hand through her long, graying hair and pets the top of a rose box that contains the ashes of her daughter Stephanie.

Spread out along Joni's couch in Jordan are the photographs detailing Stephanie's decline. The first one stars a bubbly teenage girl, and it's shot at such an angle as to make the mole on her pale cheek look like a mere shadow.

That shadow sowed the seeds of what was diagnosed after high school as melanoma. Ten attempts by surgeons to excise the tumors from Stephanie's face proved fruitless.

George Weiblen, University of Minnesota associate professor in the Department of Plant Biology
Dave Hansen
George Weiblen, University of Minnesota associate professor in the Department of Plant Biology

"Eventually," Joni says, "there was nothing left to cut."

The next set of photographs, taken two years into Stephanie's treatment, shows an emaciated young woman with yellowed, sunken eyes. Her daily regimen of painkillers offered little relief from the severe nausea that kept her from eating.

Then one day a doctor quietly suggested she try marijuana.

With the sun peeking through her living room blinds, Joni points to a Thanksgiving day photograph taken in 2002. The corner of Stephanie's mouth appears to be melting into the black boils that eat away at her jawline, ear, and neck. Still, the plate in front of her is stacked with celery and cauliflower.

By then Stephanie had tried Marinol, an FDA-approved pill that contains THC, but it had only gotten her high. A couple hits of weed, on the other hand, renewed the young woman's appetite and — although she'd lost most of her teeth — allowed her to rejoin the family for a meal.

"That plant did so much more for my daughter than any of the medicines that the doctor gave her," Joni says, tapping on the Thanksgiving photo. "Who's gonna look at this picture and tell me she doesn't deserve the dignity of having access to something that will ease the pain?"

In January 2003, three months after Stephanie first found relief from marijuana, her heart stopped. She died about an hour after midnight, clinging to her mother's hand.

Joni's story, and others like it, will soon echo in the chambers of the state Capitol. In just a few weeks, the state Legislature will take another look at a bill that could help thousands of patients like Stephanie. All eyes will be on legislators as Minnesota decides whether it wants to be the 21st state to legalize marijuana for medical use.

"There's literally no good reason to be against it," says state Sen. Scott Dibble, a DFL sponsor of the bill. "And the moral question is so clear: People are suffering and they're suffering to be relieved."

This time, it's not just the bleeding hearts and stoners who have gotten behind medical marijuana. Supporters' numbers have been bolstered by a rising tide of Ron Paul-type Republicans who see the impending debate as a chance to take back the GOP from social conservatives by winning over young voters.

"Gay marriage has gone through a similar evolution in society," says Karl Eggers, a Libertarian activist. "It's a scary, unknown thing to a lot of people, but if somebody wants to live that way, and they love one another, why should we stop them? It's the same concept applied to chemicals and to biology."

George Weiblen navigates through a crowded bar, slipping behind a curtain and onto a dimly lit stage.

It's a Wednesday night in Uptown, and eager listeners have braved the cold night to hear Minnesota's foremost expert on cannabis impart his knowledge.

A Harvard-educated professor, Weiblen runs one of only two labs in the United States licensed by the DEA to grow cannabis. For more than 10 years, he's been researching the plant's genome in the hope of one day producing a strain of hemp void of THC.

Weiblen's work on the University of Minnesota campus could one day revive the industrial production of hemp, which was once a vital crop for southern Minnesota farmers.

"This is one of the earliest known cultivated plants, with an archeological record that now dates from prehistory," Weiblen says.

In the beginning, the plant was prized and even protected by the state's political establishment — men who built a system of government while standing on hemp carpet.

Both branches of the Legislature were in session in 1881 when a fire broke out in the hallway of the first Capitol building and enveloped the dome. As lawmakers made their escape, the hemp carpet burned and the chambers filled, in the words of one reporter, with "a cloud of black, sickening, and forbidding smoke."

By the turn of the century, however, the opinions of the state's legislators had begun to change. A state law passed in 1901 — one of the earliest laws of its kind in the entire United States — banned the fermentation of marijuana for drink.

By the 1930s, as reefer madness swept the nation, racism became a motif for the anti-marijuana crowd. America's first drug czar, Harry Anslinger, warned Congress about "colored students at the University of Minnesota partying with female students smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy."

"It pushed the right buttons," says Oliver Steinberg, co-founder of the pro-marijuana Grassroots Party. "There was no sensitivity to the feelings of racial and ethnic minorities."

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