Legislators are disagreeing on a lot of big issues, but they found a bit of common ground Thursday — medical marijuana.
It's too late to push a bill through this session, but about 40 legislators in both parties, including more than a dozen committee chairmen, sent a strong signal that they want to add Minnesota to the 18 states where marijuana can be legally prescribed.
Legislators passed the legalization of medical marijuana in 2009, but were stopped by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who vetoed the bill.
Now they're ready to try again, in part because of such Minnesotans as Joni Whiting, of Jordan. Whiting watched as her 26-year-old daughter, Stephanie Whiting Stradinger, endured surgeries for malignant melanoma that ate away her face and ultimately took her life. There was just one thing, Whiting said, that eased her daughter's suffering, and getting it meant her entire family had to break state law.
"They cut her face off, one inch at a time, until there was nothing left to cut," Whiting said at a Thursday news conference, holding up a picture of Stradinger, smiling and lovely. She then covered it with a later photo of her daughter, her face flayed open and raw from treatments for the melanoma that started to grow on her cheek during her third pregnancy.
"The pain she was experiencing was unimaginable and the nausea was so severe that it became difficult for her to eat," Whiting said. "That was when a doctor at the hospital pulled me aside and told me that Stephanie might benefit from using marijuana."
The legislation proposed Thursday would allow doctors or other medical professionals to write prescriptions for up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for patients with "debilitating" medical conditions. Those conditions include cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and post-traumatic stress.
The marijuana would be available through licensed dispensaries that would grow the drug on site in locked greenhouses. Patients in remote areas could be licensed by the state to grow a small number of marijuana plants for their own use.
But is a state that doesn't allow wine sales in grocery stores ready to legalize marijuana dispensaries?
The issue is not one that breaks along party lines.
Like Pawlenty, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton opposes legalization, and for the same reason — law enforcement agencies are firmly against it.
Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, is a chief sponsor in the House, joined by Republican Rep. Tom Hackbarth, of Cedar. For Hackbarth, the cause is painfully personal. His wife is terminally ill.
"It's a matter of the quality of life in the final days for me," Hackbarth said. "We're introducing it now so we can gain support, talk to legislators and then really hit the ground running when the session starts next year."
But even if the House and Senate pass a bill to legalize medical marijuana next year, they face a formidable obstacle in the governor's office.
"The governor will not be able to support the legalization of medical marijuana as long as law enforcement is opposed," Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said. "If advocates are able to reach an agreement with law enforcement, the governor would consider the measure."
Police officials remain deeply skeptical. Legal marijuana greenhouses won't make the job of clamping down on illegal drug use any easier, they warn.
"It is an absolute regulatory and enforcement nightmare," said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. "We are not convinced that there really is a medicinal purpose to marijuana. … We see marijuana as a harmful drug and a gateway drug."
But Whiting doesn't want the governor to wait until law enforcement officials are on board with medical marijuana. Smoking the drug, she said, was the only thing that gave her daughter relief before her death in 2003 at age 26.
"He's the governor and he should lead," she said. "It's his responsibility to lead, and then it's law enforcement's responsibility to do what he says."