Will Minnesota be next to legalize medical marijuana?

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 26, 2014 - 6:58 AM

Before Minnesota considers following 20 states, a debate rages within homes, at the Capitol, health offices and law agencies.

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Maria Botker held her daughter Greta, 7, after the girl had a seizure at their home in Colorado. Two other daughters and her husband live in Minnesota, and they stay connected via time on iPads every night. “Right now I’m sacrificing time with them for the hope of a miracle with her,” Maria Botker said about being in Colorado, with access to medical marijuana.

Photo: BARRY GUTIERREZ • Special to the Star Tribune,

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Minnesota’s drug laws have torn the Botker family in half.

Seven-year-old Greta Botker suffers from a rare, aggressive form of epilepsy. Seizures wracked her body a dozen or more times a day, and nothing — not drug regimens, not special diets, not even brain surgery — helped for long.

Then the Botkers heard that in Colorado, where marijuana is sold legally, a cannabis strain known as Charlotte’s Web appeared to dramatically decrease seizure rates in children like Greta.

So Maria Botker took a wrenching step last fall. She packed a moving van, took Greta and left the family farm in Clinton, Minn., bound for a new life without her husband and two other daughters, to enroll Greta in Colorado’s medical marijuana program.

“We just decided that there was nothing more important than giving Greta a shot” at a better life, said Maria Botker, a 38-year-old nurse.

It’s a choice that has thrust the family into a roaring national debate that is about to erupt in Minnesota — one that is dividing legislators, health professionals and law enforcement in a way few policies ever do.

As the momentum to legalize marijuana builds, 20 states have taken the step in some form. Six more are considering it this year, including Minnesota. Even Wisconsin, which has some of the toughest marijuana possession laws in the region, has a medical marijuana bill in its State Assembly this year.

Polls now show more than half of Americans favor some level of legalization. But even as public attitudes shift, some worry that wider access to marijuana could harm more people than it helps.

The intensifying debate has become a battle of anecdotes: The son scoring drugs to ease his mother’s nausea during chemotherapy vs. the father who finds out that medical marijuana from other states is circulating on his kids’ college campus. The family smuggling a joint to Grandpa in hospice vs. the therapist rushing to the emergency room, where a teenager is getting his stomach pumped after mixing too much marijuana with too much alcohol.

Every law enforcement association in Minnesota opposes legalization. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he won’t sign off as long as the police are opposed. When President Obama, who has admitted to smoking pot in his youth, said recently that marijuana was no more dangerous than alcohol, Dayton, a recovering alcoholic, shot back: “Alcohol is plenty dangerous. … Why would we want to add another drug to the equation?”

Family time, Botker style

While the Minnesota Legislature gears up for the legalization debate, the Botkers live divided lives. Mark works the family farm and cares for daughters Emma, 13, and Lora, 10.

Meanwhile, 800 miles away in a house just outside Denver, Maria adjusts to her new reality. She telecommutes to her old job and every day gives Greta a prescribed capsule of cannabis extract mixed with olive oil. Greta’s seizures are waning, from 15 a day to as few as four, and she has been weaned off three of her five other prescriptions.

Nightly, the five Botkers gather around their iPads for family time, Maria and Greta on one side, Mark, Emma and Lora on the other. It’s a ritual unlikely to change unless Minnesota law does.

Greta points delightedly at the screen when she sees her father and big sisters, Maria Botker said, and peeks behind the iPad, trying to find them and pull them closer. “It’s the best part of our day, and it’s the worst part of our day, when it’s over,” Maria Botker said. “My heart just breaks. … I want my family back together.”

Long lines, many choices

Colorado is adjusting to its own new normal.

More than 10,000 customers stormed the 136 shops that opened on Jan. 1, the first day of legal sales. Once inside, they could pick from brands with names like Cannalope Haze (“melon taste”), Island Sweet Skunk and White Widow. Within a week, retailers racked up sales of $5 million. Soon, many had sold out of anything edible or smokable.

  • drug arrests in 2012

    11,969 for marijuana

    1,775 for opium/cocaine

    3,859 for other dangerous drugs

    1,028 for synthetic drugs

    Source: Minnesota Department of Public Safety Uniform Crime Report

    House and Senate bills

    Pending bills would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for chronic or debilitating conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder. The state would issue patients or caregivers a card allowing up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana or up to 12 plants growing in an enclosed, locked facility. Marijuana could be purchased at licensed dispensaries – one per county or more in large urban areas.

    Minnesota Marijuana penalties

    Quantity Charge Potential penalty

    100 kilograms+ 1st degree drug crime/felony 30 years prison, $1 million fine

    50 kilograms+ 2nd degree drug crime/felony 25 years prison, $500,000 fine

    10 kilograms+ 3rd degree drug crime/ felony 20 years prison, $250,000 fine

    42.5 grams to 10 kilograms 5th degree drug crime/felony 5 years prison, $10,000 fine

    Less than 42.5 grams Petty misdemeanor $200 fine, drug education

    Source: Minnesota Statutes §152

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