Legal medical marijuana in Minnesota closer to becoming reality

Joanie Whiting reconsidered her stance against medical marijuana when her daughter Stephanie was stricken with cancer
Michael Dvorak

The basement corridor is crowded with a noisy throng of sheriffs and lobbyists, but Joanie Whiting manages to slip away to a quiet spot a few paces away. There, she opens a thin manila envelope, removes a stack of glossy photographs, and begins flipping through them. They are of her daughter, Stephanie. In the first picture, Stephanie is a striking high school senior, her hair wavy and brown and spiked with yellow highlights.

But in the next, Stephanie's skin is pallid. From her left cheek, a gob of flesh is missing. A fine incision winds along her carotid artery and disappears into the neck of her shirt. Sutures clench the surgical wound like spider's teeth.

In the last photo, her hair is chopped to a fine buzz. She wears a stiff white gown, opened to the throat. Deep into a wasting sickness, she is scarcely recognizable as the handsome young woman from the first picture. In this final photograph, she is 26 years old, and days from death.

It was in these final weeks that Stephanie, who died of melanoma in 2003, became a criminal in the eyes of the law. Her morphine drip, pushed to the maximum allowable dosage, induced nausea. Stephanie was shedding precious pounds by the week and, worse, her pain was intractable. As her condition reached a state of terminal pain, the prospect of treating her with marijuana arose.

It was a measure that Joanie resisted. The mother of seven is a disabled Vietnam vet and an outspoken critic of illicit drug use. "Like everybody else, I thought if you used marijuana, you sat on the couch with the clicker," she recalls, "and when you turn 30 you get up and go, 'What happened to my life?'"

But Stephanie's siblings insisted, going so far as to take her out of Joanie's care and supply her with marijuana themselves. The effect was instant. Stephanie began to eat again. The marijuana increased the effectiveness of her other painkillers, and a spark returned to her eyes. When Joanie saw her daughter again, she was stunned.

"It's hard to see the light go out of your child's eyes," she says. "I saw that light again. What I saw with my own eyes changed my mind about what I had believed."

That's what brought her to the State Office Building last week, and what put her before the House Public Safety and Oversight committee to advocate for a new medical marijuana law. After a single hour of testimonials and demonstrations, the bill passed by a vote of 9-6, putting Minnesota one step closer to joining a growing national trend. From Washington to New Hampshire, blue states are going green and decriminalizing weed.

Through the 19th century, in the U.S. the crop was freely grown and sold for its textile properties. Even after 1910's Mexican Revolution brought crowds of immigrants—and awareness of marijuana's recreational uses—into the nation's consciousness, marijuana escaped serious scrutiny by hiding in the protective shadows of greater social diseases such as alcohol and cocaine.

It took prohibition to bring national crackdowns on marijuana, and in that age of teetotaling paranoia, volleys of sweeping regulations were imposed. By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, marijuana had become the criminal scourge it would remain for over four decades. By the 1950s, possession with intent to sell could carry a life sentence in some states.

The '60s brought widespread marijuana use and the revelation that the drug wasn't nearly as dangerous as billed. After the summer of love, states began to reconsider their harsh stance. Oregon was the first to decriminalize marijuana in 1973, and it's since been joined by Alaska, California, Colorado, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Maine, Ohio, and Minnesota, which treats possession of small amounts as a misdemeanor equivalent to a traffic ticket.

Yet marijuana remained illegal at the federal level. Although California law allowed for citizens to open up dispensaries to provide medical marijuana to patients, the DEA would routinely swoop in to confiscate the money and drugs.

Barack Obama vowed to change this during his campaign for president, saying that enforcing federal marijuana law would not be a priority of his administration. It's a huge momentum swing from prior years, and Minnesota's medical marijuana bill rides that tide. But the road to a House vote is still full of obstacles.

The face of the anti-marijuana lobby is Bob Bushman. He's a coordinator for the Statewide Gang and Drug Task Force, and argues that the proposed Minnesota law would not just help cancer patients, but also dealers. To demonstrate, he stacked up bricks of weed to form a mountain. "This is six and a half pounds of marijuana," he said, referring to the amount that the law would allow patients to grow. "Enough for over 5,000 joints. Why someone would need access to this amount of any medication is beyond me."

Still, the medical marijuana law is attracting support from some surprising quarters. Christ DeLaForest is a former Republican representative from Andover who now lobbies on behalf of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care. He sees not only merit in the bill, but a Republican duty to protect a patient's right to proper care.

"Doctors and patients simply make better healthcare decisions than the bureaucracy," he says. "Who in the heck are politicians to get in the way? Attitudes are changing. People have seen that this isn't the harbinger of the apocalypse they thought it might be. You can have medical marijuana and it works out fine."

Even if the bill passes, however, it faces Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto pen. He has stated numerous times and in few uncertain terms that he has no plans to sign medical marijuana into law.

"It's become popular sport to speculate what the governor might do," DeLaForest says. "But it isn't fully on his radar screen. A historic budget deficit is dominating the debate. I trust the governor will give us thoughtful and fair consideration once the bill reaches his desk."

Years after her daughter's death, Joanie Whiting expresses discomfort about a time when she was forced to break the law to care for her daughter. "I don't know if I became a criminal by letting my daughter use marijuana at the end of her life," she says, "but I truly believe that the law is unjust. There are more people like me hiding in their houses and afraid to say what they did for fear of reprisal."

For her, the guiding principle is simple and easily distilled. "What a wonderful plant," she says. "It's a miracle. And people like me aren't going to turn into drug dealers." 

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