Dibble optimistic about medical marijuana legislation

With hardline law enforcement lobbyists, a wavering governor and now almost-impossible deadlines, state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said his years-long fight to get medical marijuana legalized in Minnesota probably won’t happen in 2014. 

“This will pass,” said Dibble, who started in politics as an HIV/AIDS activist in the ‘80s. “Maybe not this year. But it will pass. It’s just too important.”

Dibble said it’s “unconscionable” not to pass this law. He introduced the medical marijuana Senate companion bill, SF 1641.

The District 61 senator said he’s lost friends to HIV/AIDS and seen the effects of symptoms, such as wasting syndrome, nausea, pain and more that medical marijuana has proven effective against. And it’s shown to be effective for all sorts of diseases and ailments without the side effects of most pills, he asserted. 

Meanwhile, Gov. Mark Dayton, DFL, is accused of playing political procrastination on medical marijuana legislation stonewalled in the Capitol. 

Dayton’s essentially given public safety officials veto power by handing tough negotiations between Rep. Carly Merlin, DFL-Hibbing, lead sponsor of the House version to this point, and police. 

Passage among lawmakers is almost assured, but law enforcement leaders and prosecutors won’t budge various watered-down iterations of HF 1818, or the Minnesota Compassionate Care Act.

“I will be engaged in this process from now on the Senate side,” said Dibble, who will open up discussions there in the coming days. “Unfortunately, Carly has had to carry a lot of the water by herself so far, because the process starts in the House.”

In a surprise move, Dayton recently sparked renewed interest in a deal, saying there’s still two months left in the session — and he’s putting some of his top aides on it.

However, Dibble still has his doubts with various policy committee bill introduction cutoffs approaching by the end of the upcoming week and next, he said. Even if a deal is reached, they’d likely need extensions for all the in-depth, lengthy discussions this controversial bill will require, Dibble said.

“I can say I’m more optimistic today than I was yesterday, basically,” Dibble said. “Now we’ll have to see if public safety officials will return to the table in good faith.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said a floor vote is unlikely this year.

“Police, Sheriffs, and County Attorneys have been very united in their concern about medical marijuana,” said Champlin Police Chief Dave Kolb, co-chairman of the Minnesota Police Chiefs Association in an email response to questions. “The reason is because medical marijuana laws make marijuana more available to all segments of society.  

“A  higher percentage of kids between ages 12 and 17 smoke marijuana on a regular basis in the states with medical marijuana laws. Law enforcement opposes legislation that would allow additional marijuana plant material to be released into our communities.” 

Dibble vehemently contradicted law enforcement’s negative assertions about legalizing medical marijuana, saying they simply “are not based in fact.”

Then on March 13, Dayton met privately with 11 people suffering from illnesses that could be relieved with medical marijuana as well as some of family members. The group were part of a protest group who arrived outside the governor’s mansion, pressing for the legalization of medical marijuana.  

Dayton himself has been laid up in a body cast following hip surgery.

After the reportedly emotional meeting, Dayton directed Chief of Staff Jaime Tincher, Senior Policy Advisor Joanna Dornfeld and Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger “to continue working with medical marijuana advocates, and other groups, to see if a compromise agreement can be reached this session on this matter,” according to a statement from his office. 

Police, though, have been adamant that they worry legalization — while sympathetic for people with real and serious medical conditions — realistically could lead to numerous public safety problems and recreational legalization as well. 

As for overall legalization, Dibble said, “I have no interest in it.” 

To date, “compromise” on the measures go so far as to outlaw all smoking of marijuana for patients, and instead use vaporizers. Not one of the 20 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., where medical marijuana is now legal goes so far, Merlin noted.

Medical pot’s been on Minnesota’s mind since at least 2009 when the Legislature legalized it. However, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, said nope to dope. Since then, Merlin and Dibble have kept the measures alive with carry-over bills until this session.

Merlin spent a weekend trying to reach a deal with a law enforcement coalition, which she described as pretty much a non-starter.

In addition to vaporizing marijuana instead of smoking it, Merlin also has unsuccessfully suggested only allowing for marijuana in pharmaceutically-produced, prescription active-ingredient pill and liquid form. Advocates even dropped a grow-at-home provision, which is common in most states where pot is legal for patients.

Still, it was a no, Merlin said. The original legal language so far allows for regulated dispensaries to distribute up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana at a time.

The bill would mandate state oversight through Minnesota Department of Health ID cards, intended for those suffering with medical problems, such as cancer and AIDS. Physicians would officially determine who benefits. However, the Minnesota Medical Association has not weighed in one way or another.

Implementation also would be a mess, ripe for abuse, police associations have stated.

“There are very sound practices in other states for safe distribution,” Dibble said. “It’s not that complicated (to implement statewide). It’s working elsewhere.” 

Law enforcement responded that they remain open to constructive dialogue on this issue. 

However, law enforcement law spokesmen also said, “We believe that medical marijuana laws carry the risk of collateral damage.” 

It’s such a no-brainer, Dibble said. 

“Those suffering now have three choices: accept pharmaceuticals and the expense and side effects; break the law and support violent criminal enterprises; or suffer in silence through pain,” he said. 



Council member’s personal experience drives support for medical marijuana 

A couple years ago, Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson almost went blind.

He had serious glaucoma in both eyes, the 29-year-old Ward 12 representative said. Johnson said he was on a phalanx of drugs, some of which had potentially fatal side effects such as death, organ failure and severe anxiety.

Eventually, he had two successful eye surgeries but was told beforehand by his doctor that the pressure inside his eyes — and thus his eyesight — could have been improved with prescribed marijuana prior to the operations.

He would not need it any longer, but his damaged eyesight is a daily reminder, Johnson said, of how patients should have every medical tool possible made available to them.

So, more than a week ago, Johnson helped lead the effort to add legalizing medical marijuana in Minnesota to the City Council’s 2014 legislative agenda.

That means, he said, that the city’s lobbyists will strategize and actively work to get the legislation passed in St. Paul. Johnson spoke with the governor and on behalf of the measure at a state House Health and Human Services Committee meeting earlier this month.

He’s been watching the debate. The stalled negotiations between bill sponsors and police. The veto threats. And now a sudden jump-start thanks to Gov. Mark Dayton and his staff’s unexpected intervention. However, there’s only two months left, plenty of opposition and committee deadlines to consider, participants noted. “I don’t think it’s dead,” Johnson said of the bill. “But I certainly am concerned. My hope is that compassion and compromise will somehow win out.”

Johnson said he knows how medical marijuana can be beneficial, so he said he has a personal, moral obligation to push for its legalization.

“If they would allow me to be on a drug that could kill me, then why not one that would actually lessen the pressure without side effects,” Johnson asked. “Why anyone else should live with less vision when they don’t have to without breaking the law is just incomprehensible to me. No one should have to live with that feeling of ‘If I could have only have done everything possible.’”

State law enforcement and prosecutor associations have rejected myriad negotiation tactics, so far. Dayton left it to them to work out a sealed deal with authorities or declared he would veto the bill’s passage. 

Now his top aides are getting involved, Dayton said after an impromptu meeting with patients and their families.

“When it comes to law enforcement, it’s their jobs to enforce the law, not prescribe it. Why should medical marijuana be treated any different than any other prescription drug that can be abused.”

Johnson noted that the Minneapolis Police Department has not taken a position either way on the issue.

Johnson added that implementation would not be easy in the city. He empathizes with the legal challenges, but Minnesota won’t be the guinea pig. It’s being done correctly in other places, he said.