The first thing that struck you about the gathering outside the governor’s residence Thursday were the families. Young couples pushing strollers, toddlers in pigtails and pretty pink dresses, some adults carrying signs with pictures of loved ones too sick to make it to the protest.

It isn’t what you’d picture when you think of a rally in support of legalizing marijuana, but these are the people who think their medical conditions can be improved by the drug.

One of the demonstrators was Sarah McGuiness, a recent widow now taking care of her son, Matthew, 10, who suffers from “severe, profound autism.”

Matthew sat in a stroller nearby and played with a toy as adults held up signs that read: “Mark Dayton cares more about special interests than special needs.”

McGuiness, of Shoreview, ticked off a list of potentially dangerous drugs Matthew is or has already taken, including Xanax and Valium. They didn’t work. But because marijuana remains illegal in Minnesota, Matthew cannot take the cannabis oil that appears to have helped other kids with similar conditions.

“In other states where it’s legal, kids are realizing a higher level of function,” said McGuiness. “Some can feed and dress themselves, and some are even learning to talk.”

Matthew can do none of those daily tasks we take for granted. The most recent bill did not include autism as qualifying for pot use should it be legalized. “But I’m hoping that if you open the door for patients listed in the bill, the door will open for my son,” said McGuiness.

By the end of the day Thursday, that door seemed to open just a crack as Dayton’s attitude toward legalizing pot for medicinal use had softened, at least a little.

Until that day, the governor had basically defaulted his opinion, and his leadership, to law enforcement organizations, which have been unwilling to negotiate with medical marijuana advocates.

A cynic might point out that Dayton was the first Democrat to be endorsed by the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis in a long time, so he appears to be showing loyalty to his law enforcement backers at the expense of sick kids.

“Cops and unions deliver votes and dollars and Dayton does not want to see them go to the Republicans,” said David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University. “I am also not sure if Democrats in general are sure what to do with medical marijuana. I think they are worried that they will be seen as soft on crime by supporting it or they may not be sure if swing voters are moved by the issue.”

If so, they are dazed and confused. A majority of Minnesotans favor legalization for medical purposes.

Heather Azzi, political director of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, notes that when Dayton first declared his run for governor, “nobody would endorse him.” The first organization to do so was a law enforcement group, she said.

“So I really do think there’s something there.”

Dayton has spoken openly about his struggles with alcohol in the past, and his use of marijuana for recreational purposes. I asked Dayton’s press secretary Matt Swenson whether that plays a role in Dayton’s attitude, but it’s never come up, Swenson said.

While Dayton has plenty of faults, a lack of compassion is not among them. So it’s hard to believe he wasn’t moved by the stories from people outside the mansion.

“At first he was very angry during the meeting,” said Azzi. “It took a while, but I think he started to understand what people are going through. I don’t think he knew a lot about medical uses of marijuana at all, and it was easy for him just to take the same position [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty did.”

At the end, Dayton seemed to take the threat of a veto unless there’s police backing off the table. Kind of. The governor did raise some legitimate questions about distribution, and Azzi said they could work on that.

“We know how to make this work now in Minnesota, with some strict controls,” Azzi said.

Dayton should help them make it work regardless of what law enforcement, which has its own agenda, thinks. This is a medical issue, not a police issue.

While some at the protest have split families or moved to states where medical marijuana is legal, McGuiness said that’s not an option for most.

“I can’t afford to move, and I shouldn’t have to move,” McGuiness said.

No, she shouldn’t.