Supporters of legalizing medical marijuana in Minnesota have struggled to build political momentum at the Capitol this year, but that isn't stopping advocates of legal recreational use from pushing for more liberal state laws governing the drug.
Several hundred supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana rallied at the Capitol on Wednesday, chanting "Yes We Cannabis" as they push to add Minnesota to a growing nationwide movement that has recently seen the drug decriminalized in Colorado and Washington state . The rally was organized by the Minnesota chapter of NORML, a nationwide group trying to capitalize on that success around the country.
"It's a whole untapped industry," said Randy Quast, executive director of Minnesota NORML and a member of the national organization's board. "The thing is, the trade is going on. Marijuana is easy to get and as potent as ever."
Minnesota NORML now has three paid employees, a network of several thousand volunteers, and in recent months opened field offices in Duluth, Rochester, Brainerd, Bemidj, St. Cloud, New Ulm and Morris. Nathan Ness, the director of organizing, said the group raised about $100,000 last year, with a goal of raising more and eventually making contributions in state legislative campaigns to lawmakers who support full-scale legalization.
It will be an uphill climb. Lawmakers who support medical marijuana are extremely reluctant to back full-scale legalization, fearing it could drag down their own efforts to get access to the drug for adults and children with serious medical conditions.
"Medicinal use and recreational use are two distinct things," said Rep. Dan Schoen, a Democrat from St. Paul Park and a police officer who co-sponsored the medical marijuana bill. "Medical marijuana detractors are going to be looking at the full legalization folks to do something radical or out of the norm, so they can point at them and say, 'See? That's why we can't do this.'"
Only one state lawmaker, DFL Rep. Rena Moran of St. Paul, spoke at Wednesday's rally. She said she's alarmed by studies showing blacks in Minnesota are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses, and intrigued by the tax revenue that legalizing marijuana would reap for the state.
"We could tax it, we could regulate it, we could have more opportunities to make marijuana safe," Moran said. But even she is not ready to sponsor a bill for full-scale legalization.
"It's not an easy subject," Moran said. "But I would like us to get to a place where the Legislature could start having the conversation."
The proposal to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota has new life in the state Senate, after Gov. Mark Dayton accused lawmakers of avoiding the issue.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee reviewed the bill Thursday. The committee did not vote, but its chair said she would take up the proposal again later this month when lawmakers return from a nearly two-week holiday break that starts Friday.
The bill would give patients with certain medical conditions access to marijuana as treatment. Dayton has expressed reservations about the proposal, citing conflicting views within the medical community as well as opposition by law enforcement groups. Two of Dayton's cabinet officers testified against the proposal at Thursday's Senate hearing: Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.
But Dayton has also met with patients who use marijuana, and the parents of children with severe epilepsy who want to treat their kids with an oil that contains cannabis extract. He has expressed sympathy, and suggested he might be willing to support state-funded research into the cannabis oil as a possible compromise. Advocates have been reluctant to support research without legalization.
Earlier this week, Dayton chided lawmakers for "hiding behind their desks" on the issue; the bill's Senate sponsor, DFLer Scott Dibble, said that remark motivated him to mount a new push for the bill.
Both Dibble and the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Carly Melin, said they believe the votes are there in the full House and Senate to pass the bill. The Legislature voted in 2009 to legalize medical marijuana, but then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it.
Minnesota would spend an addition $209 million for education, prisons and raises for state-paid home health workers, under a proposal that passed through the state Senate on Tuesday.
“There are many things in here that are desirous,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul.
The 37-27 vote came after a prolonged floor debate in which Republicans repeatedly failed to amend the measure. Republicans have pushed for deeper tax cuts instead of more spending.
“Minnesotans have once again been denied additional tax relief," said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. She called the measure "a disappointing display of misplaced priorities.”
DFL legislators who control both the House and Senate are trying to finish up the spending measures that they are paying for out of the state’s $1.2 billion projected budget surplus for he remainder of the budget cycle. Already, legislators have earmarked about $550 million for business and consumer tax relief and another $150 million for the state’s rainy-day fund.
The Senate proposal includes several provisions with strong bipartisan support, including 5 percent raises for home health workers, which will cost about $80 million.
“We support this,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. “This is something that was neglected in the budget last year.”
The proposal also includes a $2 million-a-year boost to state nursing homes to offset a measure to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour.
An unexpected increase in criminal convictions prompted Democratic legislators to set aside an additional $11 million to pay for the growth in the state prison population and the cost of renting beds from county jails.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections reported that incarcerations were up 8 percent over earlier estimates, which is an average of 513 extra offenders each year.
Law enforcement officials say the increased incarcerations come from a wide range of crimes, including a 23 percent jump in methamphetamine convictions, a 15 percent increase in DWI offenders, a 5 percent increase in criminal sexual conduct convictions. Corrections officials logged a decrease in prisoners for non-methamphetamine drug offenses.
The proposal adds millions in new spending on elementary education, including $8.8 million in early learning scholarships. The proposal sets aside money to bridge the disparity gap for minority students and for teacher evaluations.
Senators also included $3.5 million to ensure that all low-income students have a hot school lunch.
The measure also includes a one-time appropriation of $2.5 million to deal with financial challenges at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
The Senate measure differs from the House, so a special conference committee will try to resolve differences between the two. The measure increases spending by more than $741 million in the next budget cycle, ending in 2017.
Medical marijuana supporters are airing a new ad on Minnesota TV stations that criticizes Gov. Mark Dayton for not supporting a proposal at the Capitol to legalize it.
The ad features a Minnesota mother with a five-year-old son who suffers a rare disorder she said causes him multiple seizures every day. Angela Garin of Inver Grove Heights said her son Paxton's seizures were drastically reduced with exposure to medical marijuana on a trip to Oregon, where the family was able to access it legally.
In the ad, Garin urges viewers to "tell Gov. Dayton to support Paxton and stop blocking access to medical marijuana."
Heather Azzi of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care said the ad was paid for by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates nationwide for medical marijuana legalization. She would not disclose the cost of the ad buy but said it is statewide.
The ad is set to start airing Wednesday night during the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and the Late Show with David Letterman, and then during several morning news and talk shows on Thursday. Azzi said the group is likely to air a second ad starting next week.
A bill to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota has been much discussed at the Capitol this year, but has made little legislative progress. Advocates are planning a news conference outside Dayton's office on Thursday to deliver a petition in support of the bill. Advocates have been particularly critical of Dayton, alleging that in a recent private meeting with medical marijuana supporters that the governor suggested they could buy the drug illegally. Dayton has denied that.
The ad can be viewed here.
While the Minnesota Capitol has been roiled over questions about whether the legalize marijuana for medical uses, the rest of the country has moved on.
According to the Pew Center for People and the Press, a majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana completely, driven by strong support from people born after 1981.
Only two states -- Washington and Colorado -- have leglized buying marijuana. Minnesota has not explored full legalization. According to a Star Tribune poll early this year, a slim majority of Minnesotans support legalizing pot's medical use but 63 percent oppose full legalization.
Explore the changing attitudes about pot in Pew's slideshow on the issue below.
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