Medical marijuana win hinged on Range family, lawmaker

  • Blog Post by: Aaron Brown
  • May 16, 2014 - 12:23 PM

Yesterday, House and Senate leaders announced they had a deal to allow medical marijuana in Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton announced he would sign the bill, which allows for two major medical marijuana producers to be created in Minnesota, and eight locations to serve as dispensaries. The commissioner of health has new leverage in issuing eligibility requirements. The bill includes pills, liquids and vaporized marijuana, nothing that can be smoked. As the Star Tribune indicates, it legalizes forms of cannabis but would be the strictest medical marijuana law in the country.

At the forefront of this debate were three figures: Gov. Dayton, who previously opposed any marijuana bill, State Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) and State Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing). Earlier versions of the bill were much more permissive, allowing patients more flexibility in how they got their prescriptions. Dayton wanted nothing to do with those bills, as the law enforcement lobby was strongly opposed and he bases his position on what will work for law enforcement. The issue was almost left for dead, until the relentless lobbying of families who believed their sick or disabled children would benefit from medical cannabis reinvigorated the issue. Dibble's Senate bill was considered the most favorable one for pro-cannabis advocates, but it was Melin's that was crafted most specifically to win the governor's signature.

Melin was in the crucible for most of the debate because she was the one seeking the deal that would pass into law. Gov. Dayton has a reputation for being a moving target on this issue, so the challenge was significant. The Star Tribune detailed some of this in a recent profile of Melin. It's worth a read.

I've refrained from covering the marijuana issue for a few reasons. One, I'm not as informed on it as I should be. I had mixed feelings on the topic coming from a family that has faced significant drug and alcohol addiction. And one of the families that were most vocal on the issue included Josh and Angie Weaver from Hibbing, whose daughter Amelia would qualify for a medical marijuana treatment that could ease her crippling seizures from a rare condition. I work with Josh at Hibbing Community College and know the family. To be frank, I wanted to avoid the conflict of interest, though I privately empathized with the Weavers.

Knowing the situation as I do, what the Weavers did was absolutely amazing. Despite the crushing difficulty of all the driving between Hibbing and St. Paul, they maintained rigorous pressure on lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Believe me, these are not political people. They did this on their own. This Iron Range family, and their state representative Carly Melin, are among the key reasons this bill passed, which is a rather unexpected entry in the log of Range political history.

This video from The Uptake shows the press conference unveiling the compromise bill and Gov. Dayton's announcement he'll sign it.

Not everyone regards this outcome as a victory. Many in law enforcement and most prohibitionists believe medical marijuana opens a floodgate of potential problems. Further, many pro-marijuana advocates regard this law as hollow and cumbersome for people who actually need access to medical marijuana. Melin, in particular, drew a surprising amount of scorn from liberals over her willingness to cut a deal to pass something out of this session.

Here are my thoughts as someone who started out pretty agnostic on the marijuana issue (never smoked it, don't need it, didn't have an opinion until recently). What became evident early in the session was that Carly Melin was advocating the bill very specifically for families like the Weavers. It was personal for her, and held no particular political value in her Iron Range district, except to those who know the struggles the Weavers have faced. Some say that her championing of the issue was part of her long term statewide political ambition, but I don't know that she made many new friends in this process, so I discount that.

Carly Melin's strength is tenaciousness and her weakness is defensiveness. Both of those traits came out in the closing days of the marijuana debate, evidenced here, and that caused her to become the top target from dissatisfied people on both sides of the issue. In essence, Melin was simply approaching her job as she normally does, with a lawyer's mindset, as though a bill was a legal argument. Now, a bill is not exactly a legal argument. Politics encompasses more than that. Still, if anyone was upset about Melin's maneuvering during the closing days of the debate, no one should have been surprised. She methodically adjusted tactics to achieve a strategic goal: which, again, was quite simply to help as many patients as she could, the family from her district specifically, without triggering a veto from Gov. Dayton.

So we got a very strict law, but it won't be overturned. Some patients got screwed, but some got help. In coming sessions, the law will be loosened as the state and country's attitudes about marijuana laws relax. The screaming and yelling now will subside. Melin's argument is going to be that she did the best she could in the circumstances. That's probably true. For medical marijuana supporters, Dibble's Senate bill was certainly better but would have been vetoed. And a veto would be a very different story this morning.

For more session news, see how many northern Minnesota projects survived in the bonding bill deal.

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