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Continued: Lawmaker in the middle of marijuana debate navigates tough terrain

  • Article by: PATRICK CONDON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 13, 2014 - 8:56 AM

Parents who want the option of treating their seizure-prone children with a cannabis-based oil have been among the loudest advocates for medical marijuana.

As Melin initially pushed for a broader medical marijuana proposal, she frequently criticized law enforcement lobbyists fighting the bill. At one point she suggested police and prosecutor groups opposed medical marijuana because they would lose financial benefits that come with drug forfeiture laws.

“I grew up with law enforcement. All my dad’s friends were cops,” Melin said. “I’ve always known, and I still believe it to be true, that law enforcement officers are very reasonable and honorable people.”

But Melin raised eyebrows even among fellow Democrats when she appeared at a news conference in late March where medical marijuana advocates unleashed a torrent of criticism against Dayton. Several mothers of sick children said the governor advised them during a private meeting to buy marijuana on the street, a charge the governor denied. Melin stood by silently.

“I think that one got a little out of control, and I think Rep. Melin and the governor would both have wished that hadn’t taken place,” said Rep. Tom Anzelc, a fellow Iron Range Democrat.

Asked now about the controversy, Melin says only that “I wasn’t in that meeting,” referring to Dayton’s meeting with the advocates.

After that news conference, Melin retreated from talking publicly about medical marijuana for nearly a month. During that time the Senate took up its more expansive bill. Meanwhile, Melin met with House leaders to quietly retool her proposal.

With House Speaker Paul Thissen and Majority Leader Erin Murphy at her side, Melin in early May unveiled a scaled-back proposal that won quick backing from law enforcement groups, but angered many pro-medical marijuana activists. Melin admitted she would have liked to go further but said it would have cost her the governor’s support.

“She basically wants to have it both ways,” said Sally Jo Sorensen, a liberal blogger and medical marijuana supporter who has been heavily critical of Melin on social media. “It’s like she wanted to be seen as courageously defying law enforcement, but in the end she did their bidding. I think that’s where a lot of the ire is coming from.”

The House and Senate now have widely different bills: The Senate’s plan would have the drug available at up to 55 dispensaries statewide for a broad number of ailments, including intractable pain. Melin’s proposal limits availability to those who qualify for “observational research,” with fewer eligible conditions and only three distribution sites statewide.

Dayton has signed onto Melin’s bill. DFL Sen. Scott Dibble, sponsor of the Senate bill, wrote in a weekend letter to Melin and Dayton that the House bill “falls short in a number of ways.” But he said Monday he’s open to a final medical marijuana bill that incorporates aspects of both the House and Senate proposals, and said he’d be willing to see the number of dispensaries drop.

“If you want a friend in politics, get a dog. Sums up my past week,” Melin tweeted last week. Her dog, Oscar, is named after her late great-grandfather Oscar Thyren, the county commissioner. It’s a quirky Melin family tradition to name dogs after deceased family members.

While Melin offers glimpses of personality on social media, in public settings she typically is no-nonsense. Anzelc said she has succeeded without adopting the backslapping, glad-handing approach common to many Iron Range politicians.

“She’d rather talk about the intricacies of the taconite production tax than how many fish you caught,” Anzelc said.

Four decades Melin’s senior, Anzelc said he quickly learned to get a read on Melin’s mood before cracking wise at her expense.

“If she’s not in the right frame of mind, it’s going to go over like a lead balloon. Believe me,” said Anzelc. “You’ll see no smile.”

Melin’s first child is due on June 29, right as campaign seasons heats up. She’s running for re-election, and is already thinking about how to balance a political career with a young family.

“I think it’ll be tricky, trying to figure out how to make it all work,” Melin said. “But I’ll make it work.”

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