The move to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota

class=img_thumbleft> State Senator Steve Kelley (DFL-Hopkins) is known for being an education expert of sorts at the Capitol, but this legislative session, he's doffed a new cap: Marijuana advocate. With little notice, Kelly (who is also a candidate for governor) has introduced a medical marijuana bill that thus far has narrowly passed through three committees, and Kelley expects it to hit the floor in front of the full Senate before the session is over in May.

Still, Kelley is doubtful that the House will approve a companion bill, and Governor Tim Pawlenty, buzzkill that he is, has said that he will veto any piece of pot legislation.

But Kelley is undeterred, and views this as a step toward Minnesota joining 11 other states around the country that allow growers to supply marijuana for medicinal purposes to the chronically ill.

City Pages: Are you some kind left-wing fringe lunatic?

Steve Kelley: [laughs] I hadn't thought about it until somebody brought me the idea of carrying the bill in 2005. And, in the course of doing other work, I met people suffering from serious illnesses. And we talked about the kinds of illnesses that medical marijuana could provide relief for. That's what impressed me. And also the challenge of trying to explain it to a skeptical legislature, that was part of the intrigue too.

CP: I would assume this is not the most open legislature at the moment.

Kelley: You know, Minnesota has this funny mix of libertarian and watching-out-for-each-other approach to things. And some of the states that have passed an initiative have a stronger libertarian side, like Colorado or Montana.

I think the emphasis has continued to be on how we can be compassionate toward people and enable them to take care of themselves using medical marijuana And also, we've put in the protections for concerns about youth access and having marijuana getting into illicit channels. And the bill will do that.

CP: What are some of the requirements? What does the bill look like in its current shape?

Kelley: A patient with a severe disease goes to the doctor and the doctor says, "Yes, this is the diagnosis, this is what you've got, and it fits into these categories that the legislature has set up for a person to potentially get medical marijuana."

CP: What are some of those?

Kelley: Cancer, severe neuralgia, glaucoma--a couple other diseases that are listed in the bill. And the patient then takes that certificate to the Department of Health. They register with the Department of Health as a qualified patient. Then the Department of Health gives that person a card that says that he or she is participant in this program and is able to possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana without being prosecuted under state law.

And then we set up a limited number of registered organizations and primary suppliers. When the individual registers with the Department of Health, he or she identifies up to two primary suppliers. Then those primary suppliers can have in their possession up to 12 marijuana plants, and up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for each patient they are supplying to.

CP: That could become a pretty hefty stable of marijuana.

Kelly: It could for an individual, though we limit them to five patients that they are working with. A registered organization could have a larger number.

CP: What would be a registered organization?

Kelley: It would probably be a nonprofit organization that would be formed for the purpose of providing relief to a patient.

CP: As far as individuals, could anybody do this? Could I do this?

Kelley: You'd have to connect up with patients and be identified as their primary supplier. Then you'd have to register with the Department of Health to be a primary supplier, and then you could do it.

CP: There's no background check or training or anything like that?

Kelley: No. The obligation on the part of the suppliers is not to sell or transfer marijuana to people who are not qualified patients, and to limit their supply on hand to the amount identified in the bill.

CP: Are we talking about compliance checks done by somebody?

Kelley: Yes, but the bill does not provide for surprise inspections. We don't have the suppliers or organizations wave their Fourth Amendment rights.

CP: Who would look into compliance?

Kelley: Local law enforcement agencies. What the bill does is tell local law enforcement agencies not to prosecute people for activities that are in compliance with the law. But they can investigate and act on instances where the primary supplier is selling marijuana to somebody else.

CP: To a lot of people, this is going to sound like a radical thing, not just conceptually, but logistically.

Kelley: And that's an issue that's come up in the legislature. Some members have focused on, "Well, some people can be growing 200 plants if they're a registered organization." And the answer is yes, they could, but let's not let our imaginations run away with us. In other states--Colorado is similar in size to Minnesota, and in Colorado they have about 100 people who are participating as qualified patients. And it's not an idea that's spun out of control.

One of the guys who came to testify before a committee, he's one of seven patients who got a tin of marijuana periodically from the federal government. He's in a federal government "compassionate care" program. So there's seven people already out there [in Minnesota] doing this. And that's under the federal law.

The problem with the states doing this is that we're exempting people from state prosecution but we can't exempt them from federal prosecution.

CP: And that became the problem in California. Do you see court hassles coming out of this?

Kelley: I think that the Supreme Court ruling clarified the situation.

CP: How so?

Kelley: Because some of the proponents of providing relief to medical marijuana patients were hoping that the federal government would back off if the states did this. The Supreme Court said, no, it's still a federal law. The states can do this on their own, but that doesn't mean they can override federal law.

CP: The issue was this hang up on interstate commerce.

Kelley: And that's the source of the federal government's authority. We can't tell the DEA not to raid a registered organization. We can, however, tell the Burnsville city cops not to raid an organization that's in compliance with the law.

CP: What are the odds that if this gets passed that the feds will be here?

Kelley: I hope their priorities are focused on folks other than people who are providing to medical marijuana. I hope they're going after meth suppliers. I would hope the DEA would be focusing on things like that.

CP: I would assume that the law wouldn't allow for suppliers to be trafficking, but that they have to grown their own.

Kelley: Right, grow their own. Trafficking introduces a whole other set of problems.

CP: What have the votes been like in the senate committees?

Kelley: Unfortunately, they've been close, and along partisan lines. And I want this to be a nonpartisan issue. I think it's an issue about taking care of people. But it has, so far, cut along partisan lines.

CP: The governor has said he would veto it.

Kelley: Right, the governor has. And I don't think the House is going to pass it this year. So I think this is--the Senate is trying to get the issue in front of people, trying hard to get folks to think about how to actually make it work.

CP: Is Minnesota a good state for growing marijuana?

Kelley: Well, we certainly have lots of wild hemp. There are places indoors where it could be grown.

CP: Are you dealing with phone calls or your colleagues trying to paint you as some kind of stoner?

Kelley: I've gotten a couple e-mails, but not a huge negative reaction.

CP: I've got to ask: Did you inhale?

Kelley: [laughs] Well, you know in the committee, Tom Neuville, the Republican senator from Northfield, asked me "Senator Kelley, what does two and a half ounces of marijuana look like?" And I said, "You know, Senator Neuville, that would be a trick question."

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