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When a bipartisan group of legislators threw a medical marijuana bill into the hopper during the last month of the 2013 legislative session, it wasn’t intended as an 11th-hour bargaining chip. Anticipating a short session in 2014, advocates said they were trying to set the stage for convincing lawmakers that they should join a growing list of states that allow patients to use the drug to alleviate pain.

Medical marijuana push teed up for 2014

Heather Azzi

Heather Azzi of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care is is preparing to advocate medical marijuana in the 2014 session, which means trying to persuade the law enforcement community. “Our goal with this bill is to (protect) … sick and suffering patients … while preventing abuse,” Azzi says. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

When a bipartisan group of legislators threw a medical marijuana bill into the hopper during the last month of the 2013 legislative session, it wasn’t intended as an 11th-hour bargaining chip. Anticipating a short session in 2014, medical marijuana advocates said they were trying to set the stage for convincing lawmakers that they should join a growing list of states that allow patients with serious or terminal illnesses to use the drug to alleviate their pain.

The bill’s chief sponsor in the House, Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said she and other advocates plan to lay the groundwork for a campaign to explain to lawmakers the bill’s safeguards and why it’s needed.

“We introduced it late knowing we weren’t going to pursue it in 2013, because it was a budget year and we had a lot else going on,” Melin said. “But obviously we have a short session coming up, and we want to get the ball rolling over the interim so we can pick up right away once the session starts in February.”

Melin had 34 co-authors, including two Republicans, sign onto her bill. The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and garnered one GOP co-author and three DFLers.

Medical marijuana advocates have been cheered by developments in a couple of states this summer. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan earlier this week signed a bill that made the Granite State the 19th to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. In Illinois, the Legislature has sent a medical marijuana bill to Gov. Pat Quinn for his approval, which is pending.

In Minnesota’s recent legislative history, lawmakers have had significant debates on medical marijuana. In 2009, the DFL-controlled Legislature passed a medical marijuana bill and sent it to then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who vetoed it.

Since then, the issue hasn’t resurfaced seriously until now. Heather Azzi, political director of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, who advocated for the medical marijuana bill in 2009, said the groundwork is being established for a strong showing in 2014. And that means trying to make inroads with the most vocal opponent of medical marijuana: law enforcement.

“We introduced the bill at the end of session so we could begin conversations with the law enforcement community now,” Azzi said. “Our goal with this bill is to enact something in Minnesota that protects the sick and suffering patients whose doctors have recommended marijuana while preventing abuse. We don’t want anything like what we’ve seen in California [to happen] here.”

No law enforcement buy-in

California, where voters legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes through a ballot initiative, lacks the safeguards and regulations contained in the Melin-Dibble bill’s 21 pages. Azzi and Melin said the bill is very restrictive in the way it allows people to obtain marijuana.

Only dispensaries licensed by the Minnesota Department of Health can issue marijuana and it must be prescribed by the patient’s doctor. The dispensaries would be population-based. Most counties would be limited to one dispensary. Hennepin County would be limited to three dispensaries.

The legislation names the conditions for which marijuana can be prescribed, including cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder. It forbids smoking marijuana in a number of settings, such as on public transportation or in public places.

Law enforcement groups aren’t buying into the bill, however.

Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA), disagrees that the Minnesota bill as drafted can prevent the abuse of marijuana. Flaherty said he believes the bill’s definition of debilitating conditions eligible for marijuana prescriptions could allow someone like himself to get a prescription because he has lingering pain from knee surgeries.

“It’s a very broad bill, very lopsided, and we will never support it,” Flaherty said.

The opinion of MPPOA is regarded as pivotal in the debate because Gov. Mark Dayton, a DFLer who’s running for a second term in 2014, has said in the past that on several public safety issues, including medical marijuana, he won’t approve legislation that’s not backed by law enforcement.

Although Dayton hasn’t indicated a position on the Melin-Dibble bill, Flaherty’s position that his group is opposed to medical marijuana legislation in any form suggests that the bill’s prospects for gaining Dayton’s approval are challenging, at best. And Flaherty said he’s not just assuming that Dayton will serve as the bill’s backstop.

“We clearly are not going to sit back and allow something to pass through the Legislature banking that the governor is going to veto it,” Flaherty said. “We will be there as we were in the past, at every juncture that this bill travels, speaking on behalf of the law enforcement community in our opposition.”

Advocates to tout polling

In 2014, medical marijuana advocates will be tasked with overcoming skepticism in certain quarters of the Legislature as well as in the governor’s office. Toward that end, they will lay out the case that medical marijuana has broad public support. In addition to the examples of legislation passed in other states, advocates for medical marijuana plan to make the case that a majority of Minnesotans is on their side.

A poll of 600 Minnesota voters by Public Policy Polling in early March showed that 65 percent supported changing the law “to allow people with serious and terminal illnesses to use medical marijuana if their doctors recommend it.” Twenty-seven percent were opposed and 8 percent undecided. Of the respondents, 34 percent were DFLers, 27 percent were Republicans and 39 percent were independent. The largest age cohort, made up of 39 percent of respondents, were between the ages of 50 and 64.

And patients will make their case to Dayton and the Legislature.

Patrick McClellan, 46, of Burnsville, has a form of muscular dystrophy that causes severe muscle spasms, for which he takes more than 20 pills a day. McClellan said he gave marijuana a try after a severe attack of spasms that trapped him between the bed and the wall for more than two hours. He said the marijuana, which he has taken by using a vaporizer rather than smoking, works better than other medications when an attack comes on.

“When I get that warning, I would alternate between taking the medications that I wear around my neck and vaporizing a very small amount of marijuana,” McClellan said. “The medications worked seven out of 10 times, where vaporizing the marijuana worked 100 percent of the time.”

He said his doctors approved of the use of marijuana as a muscle relaxer.

McClellan said it would be better to purchase marijuana through the dispensary system rather than the present “black market” for marijuana.

“I don’t want to be a criminal to treat my symptoms. I don’t want to be looked at as a criminal,” McClellan said.

He appeared at a Capitol news conference this spring when the bill was introduced and says he plans to be vocal next year when the bill is debated.

“I will be talking to anybody and everybody to try to help this out,” McClellan said.

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