Minnesota Governor's Impromptu Meeting with Medical Marijuana Advocates Yields New Hope
By Baird Helgeson and Patrick Condon
Wrapped in a body cast as he recovers from hip surgery, Gov. Mark Dayton was on the phone Thursday with reporters, laying out all the reasons he remained opposed to the legalization of medical marijuana.
Outside the wrought-iron gates of his Summit Avenue residence, demonstrators were gathering. Some held aloft a "get-well" card that offered some caustic tips for a speedy recovery like, "Stop bowing down to law enforcement."
To their surprise, Dayton's chief of staff came outside and said that the governor wanted to meet with a smaller contingent. The 50 or so demonstrators marched inside and sent 11 representatives upstairs to the governor's private family rooms.
By the end of the meeting, with Dayton left pained by the stories he'd heard, the governor had a revised take on the issue. Dayton said he would direct his top commissioners and staffers to meet with the group and see if some compromise could be reached in the remaining two months of the legislative session.
Minutes earlier, Dayton had been on the phone broadening and sharpening his criticism of medical marijuana. The legalization bill at the Capitol, he said, would treat marijuana differently from nearly every other medicine controlled by a system of tightly regulated production, stringent testing and supervision by pharmacists.
He told reporters the bill's proposed system of 55 nonprofit distribution sites was "just folly." Law enforcement had impressed upon him that if medical marijuana were legalized, it would find its way into the hands of children and recreational users. Health experts had told him the medicinal qualities of the drug were unproven.
Patrick McClellan, a former chef from Burnsville, was among the demonstrators who filed into Dayton's room. He told the governor of the muscle spasms and pain caused by his muscular dystrophy. He said inhaling marijuana through a vaporizer is one of the few things to bring relief. "My only choice is to buy it on the black market," McClellan said. "I don't believe I should be forced to go on the street to buy something that cures my symptoms." Several parents in the group said they believed the drug would help treat the diseases of their children.
Dayton's spokesman said after the meeting it was difficult for the governor to hear from Minnesotans "enduring such pain and suffering."
Whether to legalize marijuana for medical use has at least momentarily dominated debate around the Capitol, taking on national implications as Minnesota becomes the newest state to delve deeper into the controversial issue.
For months, Dayton's criticism has centered on law enforcements' strong objection to legalizing marijuana for patients with a doctor's prescription, arguing that it would be too hard to control and could lead to full-scale legalization.
Earlier this week, the issue reached a deadlock at the Legislature, leading the bill's sponsor, Rep. Carly Melin, to pull her proposal. Thursday's demonstration was organized by the advocacy group Minnesotans for Compassionate Care. Dozens of activists signed a large card for Dayton that read: "Key to a speedy recovery: 1. Stop bowing to law enforcement; 2. Show some backbone."
McClellan described the meeting afterward as "emotional."
The governor, he said, "did say there is still plenty of time, that there's two months left in the session, that it is not dead."
Heather Azzi, political director for the compassionate care group, said she hopes access to senior members of the administration will give new life to the push for the legislation.
T.J. Nelson, a student who lives near Brainerd, said marijuana has helped alleviate symptoms of his Crohn's disease, including digestion problems, severe stomach pain and loss of appetite.
"This really shouldn't be a bureaucratic decision at all," Nelson said. "Why are lawyers and legislators making decisions that should be between a doctor and a patient?"
Melin, a DFLer from Hibbing, has been pressing Dayton to broker an agreement after advocates failed to appease law enforcement's objections.
She said Thursday that she is hopeful, "but I am not going to bang my head against the wall" to pass a bill Dayton won't sign. The governor said the medical-marijuana issue is politically vexing. Some 20 states have already legalized medical marijuana, and Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational marijuana as well.
A governor torn
Dayton said Thursday that he is torn between vigorously defending laws he took an oath to uphold while acknowledging that marijuana is already widely available.
"I uphold the laws of this state and country as they are written," Dayton said. "But I also deal with reality."
The governor said law enforcement has told him that marijuana can be found readily in virtually any city in Minnesota. The state has already decriminalized possession of minor amounts. If buyers are caught with a small amount, they face only a petty misdemeanor -- the equivalent of a traffic ticket.
Dayton noted wryly that like it or not, the state has "a perfectly efficient distribution system." He added that "I am not advocating anybody do what it is they do. I am pointing out the reality in our society."
(c)2014 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)