The Fight To Legalize Marijuana In Minnesota
(MintPress) – Colorado and Washington may have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 18 other states, plus Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana, but some states like Minnesota are still fighting to legalize it.
Currently marijuana is decriminalized in Minnesota, meaning that the first time a person is found to be in possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use, it’s treated like a minor traffic violation — allowing the user to not serve any jail time or have the offense on a criminal record.
But many marijuana advocates in Minnesota want more.
A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling at the beginning of March 2013 found that 65 percent of Minnesotans support medical marijuana legalization.
The poll also found that 66 percent of Minnesotans polled believe Gov. Mark Dayton should not veto any medical marijuana bill that passes through the Minnesota legislature, and 54 percent would not approve of their county sheriff or county attorney working to defeat medical marijuana legalization.
The findings of this most recent poll are not as high in terms of support as the findings of a poll taken in November 2012 from Minnesota Public Radio, which asked on its website if Minnesota should legalize marijuana. Of the poll respondents, almost 95 percent favored recreational legalization, about 4 percent favored legalizing only medical marijuana, and 2 percent said marijuana should not be legalized under any circumstances.
One group fighting for legalization efforts, the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), described marijuana as a basic freedom during a chapter meeting in February 2013 and referred to legalization efforts as a way to right an injustice.
But the type of legalization the group wants to see, whether recreational or medical, is not agreed upon. Scott Bohler, communications director for MN NORML, said “everybody has a different view, but they all come together,” in that even those who don’t support recreational legalization believe cannabis should be the lowest priority for law enforcement.
Another group, Minnesotans for Compassionate Care (MCC), is working to legalize medical marijuana within the next few years. But before either group sees any legalization success, they will first have to persuade Governor Dayton that legalization is what Minnesotans want.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project’s (MPP) website, many thought marijuana legalization was inevitable after the November 2012 election, as the Democratic party controlled the state’s House, Senate and executive branch, and there were many state Republicans in support of medical marijuana, but Governor Dayton remains reluctant to support any legalization effort.
Speaking to the Associated Press in December 2012, Dayton said that he doesn’t think “we need another drug operating in our society.
“As long as law enforcement believes whatever [law] is being proposed is going to make society more dangerous, I’m going to honor their concerns,” Governor Dayton explained.
Mint Press requested an interview with Dayton to ask him why he would rely on the advice of law enforcement instead of medical professionals. Our request was denied, but Katharine Tinucci, his press secretary, emailed Mint Press a statement rehashing that Governor Dayton would not sign any bill legalizing marijuana in Minnesota as long as law enforcement in Minnesota did not support the legislation.
Taking advice strictly from law enforcement seems to be a risky move, as police officers and sheriffs don’t necessarily agree on the issue themselves. As Mint Press News previously reported, law enforcement groups notoriously oppose legalization efforts because as long as the drug is illegal, police departments are able to collect millions of dollars in federal grants given specifically for cracking down on marijuana use.
Law enforcement’s interest in prohibition
Persuading Dayton that legalization is the right thing for Minnesota is no easy task, especially since part of his reluctance to pass any legislation is likely tied to his relationship with a local law enforcement lobby group.
Kurtis Hanna, executive director of MN NORML, said Dayton promised the Minnesota Peace and Police Association (MPPOA) during his gubernatorial campaign in 2010, that if he had their support he wouldn’t sign any marijuana legislation into law, including medicinal marijuana.
Mint Press attempted to contact the Minnesota MPPOA to comment on legalization efforts and confirm whether or not they made an agreement with Dayton, but our repeated calls and emails were not returned.
As Mint Press previously reported, law enforcement organizations like the California Police Chiefs Association often reject legalization legislation like California’s Proposition 19, which sought to legalize recreational use of marijuana in November 2012, because prohibition allows law enforcement groups to continue to receive millions of dollars in federal funding each year for their efforts on the War on Drugs programs.
In a campaign video from former Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, the legalization supporter revealed that the United States spends about $10,400 on arresting one person for a nonviolent marijuana offense, and spends about $853,000,000 each year in the court system for marijuana offenses.
Total money spent on the War on Drugs each year in the United States is $40 billion despite the fact that no one has ever died from consuming or smoking too much marijuana.
After marijuana was legalized last fall in Colorado and Washington, Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, told the Associated Press that the group’s stance on marijuana would not be swayed by legalization efforts and successes in other states.
“Our position is unchanged,” he said. “We do not support the legalization of marijuana for any purpose. It’s illegal on the federal level and we’re not going to support any legislation that would put us in conflict with … federal law.”
But as NORML board member Brandan Borgos says, the problem with marijuana legalization is that it’s not a black and white issue. While being an advocate for responsible use of the drug more than anything, Borgos believes abstinence-only policies don’t teach marijuana users how to responsibly use the drug.
“There’s no communication,” he said. “It’s not a black and white issue. There’s internal propaganda — we get the facts right but the focus is wrong. Instead of focusing on how since prohibition there has been an increased usage [of marijuana], we focus the national discussion on how it’s a vice.”
Minnesota NORML board members told Mint Press News they will likely have to use tactics against Dayton to make him aware that “if he votes against us, he will be fearful of his job.”
The group shared their three-point plan to persuade the Legislature to end prohibition in Minnesota, which includes working with Republican and Libertarian groups, appealing to voters emotions and sharing stories of how marijuana has helped people, and spotlighting the inconsistency in law enforcement’s stance on marijuana by profiling officers, unions and county sheriffs who support legalization.
Safer than aspirin?
Marijuana legalization activists across the United States and in Minnesota are not stereotypical high school boys who take hits off a bong while sitting on a couch in their parent’s basement. Several of the activists we spoke with said they don’t consume cannabis in any form and many are professionals working in the criminal justice sector.
A supporter of the repeal of marijuana prohibition since the 1970s, legalization activist Tom Gallagher is a criminal defense lawyer and member of Minnesota NORML who questions why we put people in prison for possessing and consuming marijuana if it has never killed a single person.
“You can’t die from it,” Gallagher said. “It’s safer than aspirin.”
Heather Azzi is the director of MCC, a group comprised of organizations, medical professionals, patients and concerned citizens who want to protect those using marijuana as a medicine from being arrested or imprisoned by legalizing medical marijuana in Minnesota.
Azzi says that the legalization of medical marijuana is a nonpartisan issue of compassion. “Doctors are suggesting something that may make [these patients] feel better and survive.” She added that because of the nausea many cancer patients face after receiving chemotherapy treatments, doctors often warn patients that if they don’t eat they will die of anorexia before they die of cancer.
Though MCC has attempted to pass legislation legalizing medical marijuana since before 2005, Azzi says the Minnesota state legislature was prepared to recently receive another medical marijuana bill. She shared that Democrats typically have been more supportive of legalizing marijuana, but added that there has been a lot of turnover in the Legislature in the last few years and as a result there are several Libertarian Republicans that strongly support medical marijuana.
Azzi says that she believes the public will persuade Dayton that medical marijuana legalization is the right thing for Minnesota, since doctors, patients and nurses have suggested that the use of cannabis may make some people feel better and help them survive, instead of just wasting away.
When Mint Press spoke to Azzi the medical marijuana bill had not been officially released — since the language of the bill had not been approved — but she shared that the bill would grant a lot of power to Minnesota’s Commissioner of Health, a position appointed by the governor.
“This isn’t California,” Azzi said. “We don’t want a law that looks like California’s — we can do better.” Of all the states that have legalized medical marijuana thus far, she says Minnesotans should expect a law that would look similar to the one in New Mexico.
“Once a patient submits an application and gets a [medical marijuana] card, they will have the option to obtain medicine at a dispensary.” The bill would require the licensure of a small amount of dispensaries in the state. Those living in rural Minnesota where there may not be a dispensary would be allowed to cultivate their own marijuana.
Patients would also be able to assign one caregiver who would be able to possess, cultivate and deliver marijuana for a medical marijuana patient.
Illnesses and conditions that are expected to be covered in the bill include: cancer, glaucoma, acquired immune disease, hepatitis C, ALS, turrets syndrome, PTSD, severe nausea, seizures, severe and persistent muscle spasms and chronic or debilitating diseases. Any other conditions could later be added if approved by the commissioner of health.
Home to many health care companies — 20 of the top 100 companies in Minnesota are in the health industry — Azzi says the medical community in Minnesota has been very neutral thus far in its response to medical marijuana. Though the bill has not received a large number of endorsements, at least publicly from medical professionals, Azzi said no one has come out in opposition either.
“Doctors are hesitant to support medical marijuana because of criminal laws,” she explained. “Doctors don’t feel comfortable talking about the issue until they are protected.”
Minnesota groups that have showed their support include Minnesota Nurses Association, Minnesota Public Health Association, Minnesota AIDS Project, Minnesota Senior Federation, and United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 789.
“Marijuana helped me”
One member of Minnesota NORML,“James,” who asked to have his identity protected, points to himself as proof that marijuana doesn’t stunt a person’s growth or negatively affect a person’s brain. A regular user by the time he was 15 years old, James, now 52, says his brain fully developed and pointed to President Barack Obama as an example of a user who turned out fine.
“Are you telling me the president of the United States’ brain isn’t fully formed? No! [Marijuana] didn’t stunt his growth.”
Gallagher agrees. “Everybody I know that smoked too much marijuana fell asleep on the couch after eating half a pizza.” Compare that to the fact that alcohol is involved in 99 percent of domestic abuse cases, Gallagher said, adding that it really irks him when people make light of marijuana legalization. “It’s not a joke,” he said.
“What if Obama or George W. or Clinton had gotten caught? Or some scientist or cancer researcher? None of those presidents would have been elected since you can’t run for office if you’ve been convicted of a federal crime. And the scientist? You can’t necessarily go to college if you lose financial aid, student loans and scholarships.”
At a Minnesota NORML meeting, one medical marijuana legalization supporter, “Dean,” who wanted his identity to remain protected, told Mint Press that he personally knew a handful of people, including himself, that would benefit from the use of medical marijuana.
“My father was an alcoholic and had sleep apnea. Cannabis is a good exit drug,” he explained. “As long as alcoholics have it they are fine. From a sleep aspect, if you get too much, you fall asleep.
“My mother had glaucoma. Of the four federally legal patients, at least one has glaucoma. My brother is mentally retarded and an alcoholic and has psychological conditions. Cannabis helps brain conditions.”
Dean continued sharing that his his ex-wife had been sexually abused as a child and “had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) off the charts — even vets don’t screen as high as she did. She went on to develop epilepsy.”
And lastly, Dean says his current wife has a condition that she could use marijuana for and says he has a problem sleeping that could be helped with cannabis.
Both Minnesota NORML and MCC expect to see medical legalization in 2014 and MN NORML hopes recreational legalization will occur around 2016. But Borgos says that marijuana advocates and groups like NORML will always have a purpose.
“Legalization is just the first fight,” he said.
While NORML’s main mission is to advocate for the legalization of marijuana and protect users, Borgos says the Minnesota chapter is working to show support of other causes.
“We’re not just concerned about legalization,” he said.
Borgos wears a gold-colored cannabis leaf pin on his person daily, including to work. He says that though he receives some eyerolls, many people ask about it.
“I work really hard to prove I’m a good person,” he explained. “I’m trying to combat a perception,” which has included removing ear piercings, in order to get people to listen to him.
Of the Minnesota NORML board members, most of them have removed any piercings they had and cut their hair short in order to be taken more seriously by the public. Bohler is one of the few exceptions in the group, who after joining the group decided to grow out his hair.
“I might have long hair and wear tie-dye, but I’m a sane guy,” he said. Adding that fear about law enforcement investigating NORML members or those who attend meetings has prevented many people from joining the movement.
In agreement with Bohler, Borgos added that he’s concerned about having his involvement with NORML investigated by law enforcement. He says if he lost his license to practice law and was dropped from the state bar association, Borgos says he would be out the some $170,000 he spent on getting his law degree, all because he has an opinion about a flower.
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