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Medicinal marijuana advocates turn up heat

Jessica Hauser of Woodbury, who wants access to the marijuana extract CBD to treat her son Wyatt’s seizure disorder, says she thinks the legislation still has a chance. (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)

Jessica Hauser of Woodbury, who wants access to the marijuana extract CBD to treat her son Wyatt’s seizure disorder, says she thinks the legislation still has a chance. (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)

With the fate of proposed medical marijuana legislation still uncertain, Minnesotans for Compassionate Care heralded the latest additions to its coalition at a Capitol press conference on Tuesday morning.

That coalition now includes more than 100 individual doctors and clergy members, according to Heather Azzi, political director of MCC. She also noted that the legislation has broad support among lawmakers, garnering the maximum number of sponsors in both the House (35) and the Senate (five).

With less than a month left in the session, however, all that could be for naught without a break in the impasse between advocates and Gov. Mark Dayton, who has indicated he won’t sign a bill without backing from law enforcement groups.

Saying the current law “flies in the face of common sense,” Azzi insisted she remains hopeful that an agreement can be reached this session.

Rumors have swirled about a brewing compromise that would provide for the legalization of a marijuana extract, called CBD, which is thought to be useful in treating certain seizure disorders in children. Such children — and the pleas from their mothers — have been at the forefront of MCC’s push this session.

Azzi, who said she believes Dayton’s opposition has “softened,” also said that she was not involved in any negotiations over the Easter break.

Dayton revived issue

Medical marijuana appeared dead for the session until early April, when Dayton publicly challenged lawmakers to take up the matter. That prompted DFL leadership in the Senate to schedule a first hearing for the bill, which was introduced last spring by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.

At its April 10 hearing, the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee took testimony but no action. However, two top administration officials — Ed Ehlinger, the commissioner of the Department of Health, and Lucinda Jesson, commissioner of the Department of Human Services — testified against the bill. They cited concerns about possible effects of marijuana-derivatives on brain development in children and the practical problem for state regulators with regard to ensuring product quality and proper dosage.

Asked about such worries, Azzi responded that uncontrolled seizure disorders can cause brain damage. She called the claims about product consistency “simply not true,” noting that the proposed legislation establishes a safety compliance lab.

In its continued push to keep the issue alive, the MCC trotted out some new faces at Tuesday’s presser, including Neil Lynch, the chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

“This is a very personal issue for me. I want these children to have the same access to this therapy as my mother had,” said Lynch. Lynch explained that his mother, who died of lung cancer, had that option because she lived in California, where medical marijuana is legal.

While the Liberty Caucus has passed a resolution supporting medical marijuana legislation, Lynch acknowledged there is continued division among Republicans. “There is still the stigma about marijuana in general and there are some good Republicans who think it is a moral issue,” Lynch said.

While no Republican gubernatorial candidates have yet come out in support, Lynch said, “We’re working on them.”

Dave Wahlstedt, a delegate at the 2012 Republican National Convention and a current member of the Liberty Minnesota Political Action Committee, said Liberty Minnesota will keep a close eye on lawmakers’ positions.

“You can be sure this is going to be at the top of our issues to score. It’s just such an easy issue,” Wahlstedt said.

Calling current marijuana prohibition “the height of hypocrisy,” Wahlstedt asserted that many who oppose legalization — including lawmakers and police — have used the drug.

“This cannot last,” he said. “Anyone who wants to vote against it, to stand against it, can make a dinosaur out of themselves. But I don’t recommend it. The issue’s time has come.”

The Rev. Catherine Schuyler, a pastor from the Duluth Congregational Church, drove down from the Twin Ports on Tuesday to lend her support. Schuyler said opposition to the bill “belies basic human decency.”

“My scripture speaks harshly to those who ignore the pain of the suffering,” Schuyler said.

The so-called “mommy lobby” also turned out for the Tuesday conference, as did many of their children. Jessica Hauser of Woodbury, who wants access to CBD to treat her son Wyatt’s seizure disorder, said she thinks the legislation still has a chance.

“We’re going to keep talking about dispelling some of the myths around this medicine,” said Hauser. She noted public support is strong, referencing a recent poll that found 68 percent of Minnesotans approve of the measure.

Broader legalization push

Whatever happens with marijuana-related legislation this session, lawmakers can expect to hear plenty more on the subject in the future. While Minnesotans for Compassionate Care has concentrated on medical marijuana initiatives, another group, Minnesota NORML, plans to pursue a more aggressive agenda next year.

“Any reform of marijuana laws is better than none, but we’re ramping up for a full legalization bill next session,” said Randy Quast, the executive director of Minnesota NORML. Quast said he has spoken with lawmakers interested in sponsoring such legislation.

Minnesota NORML has not been much of a presence at the Capitol in the past. But Quast said he expects the organization will soon become a more prominent player, noting that the chapter recently opened an office in Minneapolis and hired three paid staffers.

He said NORML would try to steer future discussions away from medical marijuana and toward the damage and costs of criminalization. A retired trucking company executive, Quast said he drawn to the issue after a SWAT team raided his home in 2008.

Originally charged with felony possession, Quast entered a pretrial diversion program and the charges were dismissed in 2010. A longtime marijuana smoker, Quast said he knew little about the politics or law surrounding marijuana but felt compelled to take an active role after his run-in with the law.

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