Medical marijuana debate puts spotlight on law enforcement's political influence

Comforting baby
Jessica Hauser, holding her crying son, prepares to testify in favor of medical marijuana at a Senate committee hearing earlier this month.
Glen Stubbe / The Star Tribune via AP

Some Minnesota legislators, frustrated with their inability to make any headway against law enforcement objections to a medical marijuana bill, are expressing concern that police and prosecutors are spending too much time at the Capitol protecting and serving their own interests.

Among them is state Rep. Carly Melin, who has made headlines for taking on police and prosecutors with her push to legalize medical marijuana. Melin, DFL-Hibbing, is frustrated that Gov. Mark Dayton won't support a medical marijuana bill unless it has the support of law enforcement.

"I'm starting to wonder who makes the laws around here," she said. "It seems like we take their opinion into pretty heavy consideration whenever we're passing legislation."

Efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota have drawn sharp criticism from law enforcement officials. But medical marijuana isn't the only issue that police and prosecutors are trying to influence. They also have been working on criminal forfeiture, surveillance and drug issues.

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Melin said she's also surprised law enforcement groups objected to a bill that would give immunity to people who seek emergency help for someone suffering from a drug overdose.

Carly Melin
State Rep Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, spoke at a committee meeting on legalizing medical marijuana in the state on March 4, 2014.
Matt Sepic / MPR News

Lawmakers who are trying to limit the amount of data collected by authorities say they're also concerned with the pushback they're seeing. They say police and prosecutors should enforce the law, not write it.

State Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said police and prosecutors shouldn't be able to use devices that collect driver's license data for vehicle locations, and track cell phones and GPS tracking devices without first getting a warrant. He said police should have the capability to collect the data, but they should also have to seek a judge's OK to do it.

"It's our job as civilian legislators, representatives of the people, to hold law enforcement accountable, especially law enforcement," Petersen said. "Law enforcement is the one entity -- government entity -- that has the ability to imprison you and take your life if necessary. If anybody should be constrained by the law, it ought to be law enforcement."

Police have told lawmakers that restricting the use of those data collection devices could harm their ability to fight crime.

Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, said group and others are just trying to inform lawmakers about the implications of their actions.

"If they feel that we offer too many opinions, speak up too much in public testimony or give our opinions too much, if that is called clout, then we don't apologize," Franklin said. "Because we think it's good public policy for law enforcement to speak out on varying issues that we may have to implement."

Some lawmakers say police and prosecutors have too much clout. State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, has been at odds with law enforcement over surveillance issues and a bill that would provide compensation to people who were wrongfully imprisoned.

Lesch, who prosecutes domestic assault crimes for the City of St. Paul, said law enforcement groups may feel emboldened because Dayton listens to their concerns.

"They have the ear of the governor. When we pass something, obviously that matters quite a lot if the governor is not going to sign something," Lesch said. "You can toil for months or years or something on a particular policy area and if the governor is not going to sign it, you've wasted your time."

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, also aligned himself with police and prosecutors. Pawlenty vetoed a medical marijuana bill in 2009. For his part, Dayton isn't too concerned about criticism that he's too close to police and prosecutors.

"If I'm going to be criticized for respecting law enforcement officials and depending on their perspective to know what the consequences of laws are going to be in the real world where they're fighting crime every day, I'll accept that," Dayton said.

One initiative that law enforcement has failed to effectively influence over the last few years has been enacting stricter gun laws. Bills that would have enacted universal background checks, assault rifle bans and limits on ammunition clips have been defeated.