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."

The new legislation prohibited manufacture, possession, and sale, but made two important exceptions: one for hemp farmers, and one for licensed pharmacists, who remained free to dispense the plant for medicinal purposes.

Both exemptions would become meaningless as the penalties in Minnesota grew. Although there's no evidence that a judge ever applied it, one law that sprung out of the Red Scare of the 1950s made the sale of marijuana to a child punishable by up to 40 years in jail.

In the 1970s, marijuana became a controlled Schedule I narcotic, yet locally possession of an ounce and a half was decriminalized. By decade's end, legislators had passed the THC Therapeutic Research Act — which promised to look into marijuana as a way to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy — but the bill never got funding.

"I know of no other plant that is so regarded as a miracle by some and a menace by others," says Weiblen, the U of M professor.

On campus, Weiblen turns the key and enters a windowless concrete room with deep freezers containing samples of cannabis DNA. The room is rigged with motion detectors and alarms running directly to campus police. It resembles less a minimum-security prison than an outdated science classroom replete with bright orange cabinets.

Weiblen unlocks another door to reveal a dark room brimming with foliage under the gaze of a high-intensity light. There's no cannabis growing in here at the moment, but Weiblen's experiments in the past have involved cross-breeding seeds to bring the level of THC down.

His attempts to produce genetically modified crops have been viewed with suspicion by hemp purists, so he's decided to fill this room with plants that escaped cultivation and have been adapting to field conditions in Minnesota for a century.

Weiblen is looking, in other words, for the stuff that grows wild on the side of the highway — ditch weed.

"It could be," he says, "that the American hemp of the future is already out there."

The toothpick flags protruding from a tray of brownies are clear about tonight's message: "Repeal Prohibition." They sit on a table in the basement banquet hall of a Mounds View bowling alley during a forum hosted by the Republican Liberty Caucus.

Kurtis Hanna, a lanky and soft-spoken activist, wastes little time hijacking the stage, where the conversation up until now has focused on Sunday liquor sales. Hanna grabs a piece of paper and scribbles down a question that's read to the panelists: "Do you see an overlap with marijuana prohibition laws?"

Gordon Anderson, a conservative author, takes the bait and scowls into the mic, seething at anything resembling an invasion of personal choice.

"Prohibition is government trying to do something government can't do," Anderson thunders. "It doesn't work." Hanna smiles and returns to his booth under the banner of Minnesota NORML.

Medical marijuana is set to become a popular issue in 2014 because it's no longer the domain of a single major party. The new coalition hopes to push legislation to the governor's desk and pressure him into signing it.

The reasons differ, but the desire of these strange bedfellows is the same. For liberals, who put the issue on their official agenda way back in 1992, medical marijuana is a question of tolerance and pain relief when the sick are out of options. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to speak of it as an issue of government intrusion.

"Frankly, as a fan of limited government, I think doctors and patients are the best people to make healthcare decisions," says state Sen. Branden Petersen, a Republican who sponsored the current bill. "And I think that's a very reasonable position that more people can get behind."

Petersen is tight with Liberty Minnesota, the Political Action Committee responsible for the brownies. The group counts fewer than 100 members, and only a few thousand dollars to its name, but it has the ear of several important conservative legislators. The PAC compiles score cards on how politicians vote and sends recommendations on action for upcoming bills.

"Most of us don't really care about marijuana," says Dave Wahlstedt, a member of Liberty Minnesota. "We don't want a War on Drugs. And if there has to be marijuana in order for there not to be a war, let there be marijuana."

Many lawmakers aren't prepared to follow groups like Minnesota NORML or Liberty Minnesota down the path of full legalization. Instead, they insist that medical marijuana is an end in itself, one with overwhelming support.

Earlier this month, a St. Cloud State University survey found that, although the state is split on full legalization, 76 percent of Minnesotans support marijuana when prescribed by a doctor. The numbers revealed a big push of support from the right — Libertarians (90 percent) followed by Democrats (86 percent) and Republicans (62 percent) — with younger voters far more sympathetic.

An impressive chunk of the state's major and minor party candidates — DFL, Libertarian, Independence, Green and, of course, Grassroots — are also on board. Although the strongest opposition remains Republicans like Bob Barrett — who works as the executive director for the substance-abuse organization Hazelden — the MNGOP 2012 standing platform calls for the elimination of federal drug laws. It adds, "We reaffirm a state's right to regulate controlled substances, including illegal drugs."

Most of the GOP gubernatorial candidates have gone on record supporting medical marijuana, including the current frontrunner, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who once sat on the state's Public Safety Policy and Finance Committee. He now favors a bill like the one approved last year in Illinois.

Johnson considers himself a "pretty strong social conservative" but deviates when asked how he came to support an idea that was taboo only a few years ago.

"When I hear doctors say, 'I've had patients who at the end of their lives are suffering terribly, and if I had this option it would be a better option than anything else I could give to them to die peacefully,'" Johnson says, "that's powerful."

Conservatives have come a long way since 2009, when the majority of Republicans fought legislation that would have allowed patients to possess up to an ounce and a half through their caregivers. The bill made it to then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty's desk, but he spiked it.

The wisdom of Minnesota political circles holds that Pawlenty worried he'd damage his presidential campaign by loosening marijuana laws back home. That may be true, but those who know him personally insist he labored over the decision more than he's given credit for.

"He did give the bill a look," says Chris DeLaForest, a lobbyist who went on to work in Pawlenty's administration. "At the end of the day, he just wasn't convinced that it was time for medical marijuana in Minnesota."

The following year, officials at the MNGOP hired a consultant to look into whether this was an issue that could help them at the ballot box. After spending $10,500, the answer came back an unequivocal "Yes."

"It's gone from an obscure issue to one that's front and center," says Michael Brodkorb, who was the MNGOP deputy chair at the time. Just look at the questions now asked in GOP campaign forums: jobs, economy, and healthcare, Brodkorb says, "but you can throw medical marijuana right in with it."

Courts also seem to be warming to the issue. More than 20 years ago, the state appellate court looked into the eyes of Gordon Hanson, a 53-year-old accountant from Roosevelt who'd been self-medicating with marijuana, and told him his epilepsy was not an excuse for breaking the law.

In the last decade, however, the courts have quietly reversed the Hanson ruling. For instance, in 2003, the justices reviewed the case of a homeless man named Bradley Fordyce, who'd been caught growing his own supply on forestland in Crow Wing County. The subsequent opinion, though it went unpublished, was clear: Fordyce's right of due process had been violated because he wasn't allowed to explain the full context of his conduct.

"The pendulum will swing," says Marc Kurzman, a pharmacist-turned-lawyer in Minneapolis who has been challenging the constitutionality of marijuana laws for 40 years. "The next time this gets to the Supreme Court, there's gonna be a different decision. It's not because the facts changed. It's because public opinion has changed."

The governor's reception room in St. Paul is a throwback to years long gone. It's fitted with large oil paintings, lazy bourbon-and-cigar couches, and ornate wood-and-plaster moldings of corn, acorns, and other indigenous plants.

One morning in January, Gov. Mark Dayton, the man who holds the power to sign a medical marijuana bill into law, approached the podium and smiled beneath a large crystal chandelier.

Since getting into office, the governor has reiterated time and again that he wouldn't touch any marijuana bill without the approval of the state's top cops and prosecutors.

Why, a reporter asked, have you given so much weight to the opinions of law enforcement over those of the medical community on the issue of marijuana?

"There are just so many unanswered questions," Dayton answered.

A few days prior, the governor had suggested he was open to signing a medical marijuana bill provided that a cost-benefit analysis was done on similar programs in other states. He called again on the bill's supporters and opponents to come together and hash it out.

"The only way you're going to have a chance of reconciling those very different and strongly held views is by getting some objective information," Dayton says. "I just don't think it's going to proceed otherwise. I told law enforcement when I was screening with them in 2010 I wouldn't support anything that they strongly oppose. I've kept that promise and I'll keep that promise."

Of course, politicians say this type of pablum when everyone is listening. At first glance, Dayton's remarks appear to keep the door firmly nailed shut. But look closer: They actually represent a subtle change of heart.

What the governor neglected to mention was that he has met behind closed doors with people whose family members suffer from chronic pain and could benefit from medical marijuana. They describe the governor's reactions to their conversations as thoughtful and reasonable, as well as hyper-aware of his re-election campaign in the fall.

The position of Minnesota law enforcement, on the other hand, has not changed in 80 years. When the debate heated up in 2009, the top brass signed off on a letter suggesting that the pain and suffering experienced by cops and prosecutors in combating drug dealers is equal to that experienced by patients with debilitating and terminal illnesses.

Going one step further, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom called a press conference late last year and scoffed at the findings of national cancer studies and 20 other state legislatures.

"The simple fact of the matter is that marijuana is not a medicine," Backstrom told reporters. "Rather, it is an addictive drug that is the most widely abused controlled substance in our state and nation."

Reformers point out that the medicinal value of marijuana might be easier for law enforcement to see if they spent a fraction of the time reading up on the drug as they do combating it. Research at the federal level has been systematically stymied by those in power — a point that James Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association, concedes.

"I think we're fighting the battles state by state, but we should be putting our efforts upon education and research for medical," he says. "I guess I'm at a loss as to why we cannot collectively do that as a society."

Despite Dayton's call for compromise, the bill's supporters say law enforcement officials have been unwilling to engage in serious discussion. The medical marijuana coalition has asked for feedback on specific provisions and gotten nothing in return.

When asked why law enforcement wasn't willing to work out their differences, Franklin says, "I'm not sure what compromise looks like."

Most other states have pushed through marijuana legislation without the support of law enforcement, and Franklin seems resigned to this possibility. In that event, he says, cops and prosecutors would have no choice but to go along with it.

"But," he adds, "I'm not sure we want our fingerprints on something we do not feel is proper for our communities and our public safety."

Even the most ardent supporters of medical marijuana sympathize with this position. Asking cops to support marijuana is like asking firefighters to support fireworks, says Heather Azzi, the political director of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, who wrote the bill.

"I don't know any Minnesotan who in hospice care has gone to law enforcement for a second opinion," she says.

There's at least one cop at the table: Dan Schoen, a DFL representative and former narcotics investigator who has insisted that questions of security and accessibility have been addressed. The bill as it stands goes so far as to prohibit patients from smoking marijuana in front of children and would criminalize any patients who divert even a small amount of their supply.

"This isn't about smoking a fatty down on the street corner for the fun of it," Schoen says. "It allows for us to be compassionate to the people we serve, and get them the help that they deserve."

The walls of the Weaver family living room in Hibbing are painted blue. Near the door rests a tiny trampoline, where one daughter burns off her boundless energy. There's also a stroller harness, where the other daughter, Amelia, consigns herself for much of the day.

For now Amelia sits between her parents, looking blankly into the air and jerking her limbs. Suddenly the frail girl deflates and droops forward, moaning quietly as the air escapes her lungs.

"That's the only sound she makes," says Angie, petting her seven-year-old daughter's stomach until the latest seizure passes. This marks her 50th of the day, by Angie's count.

Until five years ago when she experienced her first seizure, Amelia had been developing on par with other children, able to recite her ABCs and count to 20. Doctors mistook the episode as a symptom of high fever, Angie says, but later testing revealed that Amelia suffers from Dravet Syndrome, a rare and crippling form of epilepsy.

Unable walk on her own, Amelia spends her play time fitted with a pink helmet. The Weavers have removed the frame on the girl's bed and the knobs on her dresser for fear their daughter will accidentally hurt herself. A video monitor feeds into her parents' bedroom, so that they can keep a watchful eye through the night.

One year ago, Angie says, Amelia keeled over in the living room. The special padding in the carpet did little to break her fall. She broke her arm in half.

When asked what the family plans to do if the 2014 legislative session comes and goes without a medical marijuana bill, Angie doesn't hesitate to answer.

"If it doesn't pass," she says, "it's Plan B: Colorado."

It's there that growers have developed a strain of marijuana, called Charlotte's Web, that's so low in THC and high in CBD, a non-psychoactive compound, that it's classified as hemp. When ingested as a gel or pill, it has allowed children with Dravet to not only control their seizures, but also regain cognitive functions.

The Weavers wouldn't be the first Minnesota family to relocate west for medical marijuana, but that doesn't make the prospect any easier.

"You're leaving everybody who helps you," says Amelia's father, Josh. "You're leaving your jobs, your health insurance. It's not going to be an easy trip, but one we'll take."

Show Pages
 
 
Loading...