Marijuana politics could be heating up soon in Minnesota

Los Angeles To Not Enforce Ban On Marijuana Dispen
Marijuana plants grow at Perennial Holistic Wellness Center, a Los Angeles not-for-profit medical marijuana dispensary in operation since 2006. Californians voted to legalize medical cannabis use in 1996, clashing with federal drug laws.
David McNew/Getty Images

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers aims to pass a law next year that would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients with debilitating ailments.

Law enforcement groups oppose making marijuana legal. But state Rep. Carly Melin, the bill's chief sponsor in the House, said it would bring much-needed relief to some patients. There is also a Senate version of the bill.

"The medical marijuana conversation really is centered around compassionate care and allowing for patients to be prescribed medication from their physician that will help them," said Melin, DFL-Hibbing.

Today's Question: How should marijuana be regulated in Minnesota?

Others, however, including members of the state's Independence Party, say marijuana should also be legalized for other purposes.

Carly Melin
Carly Melin represents Minnesota's District 5B in the Minnesota House.
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After voters in Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives last year to legalize marijuana, Independence Party of Minnesota delegates decided earlier this year to add a new plank to their party platform. It calls for the legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana.

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Mark Jenkins, the party's state chair, said people of all ages have told him that they think it would be a smart thing to do.

"We're penalizing people for what is not a crime for stronger drugs, which could be alcohol or other things that can be abused," Jenkins said. "And it's an opportunity to put more and better control on it. Also, a revenue opportunity as well, so there are a lot of different constituencies that like it for a lot of reasons."

Jenkins and other IP members recently gathered at a St. Paul restaurant to talk about marijuana, including legislation introduced this year to legalize the use of medical marijuana prescribed by a physician. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now have medical marijuana laws on the books.

"What's really holding us back in Minnesota is law enforcement and the governor."

National Conference of State Legislatures: State by state medical marijuana laws

But Heather Azzi, political director for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, told the group that adding Minnesota to the list will take a lot of work, particularly because Gov. Mark Dayton does not support it.

"What's really holding us back in Minnesota is law enforcement and the governor," Azzi said. "The governor's most recent position back in December was that he's not going to sign anything that law enforcement is objecting too. So, we're working with law enforcement right now. They're calling us. They're willing to talk about this, and we're going to find a solution."

Some marijuana advocates want a much broader discussion. Kurtis Hanna, former executive director of the Minnesota affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, also known as NORML, made it clear that his organization's pro-cannabis agenda goes far beyond medical marijuana.

"Our organization specifically is in favor of full legalization. It's not pushing for medical marijuana to be legalized," he said. "However, we aren't against medical marijuana. We definitely would like to see it passed. However, we don't see it as the solution to the problem, the full solution."

"You know, marijuana is the gateway drug to the use of a lot of other chemicals."

Hanna said the push for legalization has a long way to go. But he said the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota showed him how quickly momentum can build for an issue.

Melin said she does not support full legalization. She said the issues are separate, and she hopes they stay that way.

"The conversation about the full legalization of marijuana really distracts from the message of the importance of medical marijuana," Melin said.

New marijuana laws still appear unlikely in the face of staunch resistance from statewide law enforcement groups, including the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said the group's position against medical marijuana has been consistent since 2007. Backstrom said marijuana is a dangerous drug that should not be legalized.

James Backstrom
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom in 2005.
Jim Mone/Associated Press

"You know, marijuana is the gateway drug to the use of a lot of other chemicals," he said. "It is the cash crop that drives the illegal drug trade in our country and in our state. Legalizing it is just going to just increase its use, and we think cause a lot of problems."

Backstrom said his organization is also preparing for the expected medical marijuana debate next session. He said county attorneys will strongly oppose the bill.

One of the bill's co-sponsors, state Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, thinks the time is right, but only for medical marijuana.

"The people that know about this legislation know that it's very restrictive," Hackbarth said. "It's probably the most regulated bill in the country as far as medical marijuana goes. I think people are ready for it to happen."