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May 14, 2014

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Oliver Steinberg

Medicinal cannabis bills were introduced as long ago as 1991; some of the sponsors then were Linda Berglin, Carlos Mariani, and Lee Greenfield, if memory serves, and also Alice Hausman, Karen Clark, and John Marty--who are still in the Legislature. The bills would pass a committee or two and then hit the prohibitionist stone wall. At one point in the '90's, the Drug Policy Foundation provided money to hire Bob Vanasek, the former speaker, as a lobbyist, but it didn't help. I don't recall exactly when Marijuana Policy Project first appeared in our state, but they thought it would be a cinch--take the bill away from the urban liberals and waltz it through. They had Sen. Steve Kelley sponsor it I believe in the 2005 or '07 session; then Steve Murphy carried it in subsequent years. They made an effort for bipartisanship and had Steve Sviggum as a co-sponsor while he was in the House but after he's lost the speakership.
It tuned out to be harder than it looked in Minnesota . . . and it still is. MPP wrote the bills; so they differed from the Revisor's previous efforts but reflected the experiences MPP had in other states.
Personally, I testified with objections to features in the MPP bills that I disliked; while still saying that overall they were better than the existing law (the 1980 THC Therapeutic Research Act.) One memorable hearing was when Paul Thissen denied my chance to testify although I had arranged beforehand with the committee administrator. In that case, it was just as well, but anyone who's tried to weigh in as a private citizen always finds lobbyists have more clout.
The outcome this year is disappointing because there was NO NEED to water down the bill, as was done, into a sort of Rube-Goldberg parody of a law. The only real objection came from the law enforcement lobby and they had no convincing case--since none of the 20 states which have adopted medicinal cannabis laws since 1996 have repealed them. There's no public safety threat: case closed!
As the cops and prosecutors and their stooge, Gov. Dayton, began to look really bad in their stand against the desperate parents, the heavy hand of the shadow government reached out to rope in the state medical association and other establishment-entwined entities to also voice opposition to the MPP bill (Melin's original version.)
The DFL leaders weren't looking for how much they could help patients, they were looking for how little they could do to help patients. And they were doing this out of deference to Dayton, who'd sold his soul to the police and sheriffs lobby. Cynical and sickening. In effect, the cops were holding the afflicted kids as hostages.
Rep. Melin ends up agreeing to an impractical, expensive and absurd pretended compromise--and throwing her erstwhile coaches and comrades from MPP under the bus--because the hard-line prohibitionists really were willing to let people continue to suffer, rather than that they should smoke cannabis or use it for intractable pain--not to mention migraines or rheumatism or depression or paraplegia which are all excluded from the program!
A different approach to the issue was taken in bills introduced by Sen. Ellen Anderson and Rep. Hausman in 2010, and in 2012 by Sen. Marty and Rep. Hausman, but the media ignored them and the lobbyists scoffed.
One constant has been the fact that public opinion strongly favors medicinal cannabis and has for the past 30 years; Jesse Ventura was elected after campaigning in favor of it; recent polls showed between 63 and 75% support (except for the notoriously inaccurate Star Trib poll which still reported majority support.) There was no electoral hazard to legislators! Indeed, with the possible exception of the minimum wage, every other DFL-enacted topic is much less popular, including marriage equality and the anti-bullying law. [Not counting tax relief--no controversy there!]
Rep. Melin has put her faith in her bill and is trying to prove she can serve two masters--the constituents who trusted her to help, and the law enforcement lobbyists who have lied about medical cannabis for 40 years and who only want it to fail.
Her alleged compromise excludes 95% or more of patients--denying them the fundamental right of equal protection of the law; it discourages doctors with red tape and intimidation; it reinforces the legal fiction that there is something radically dangerous and unsafe about cannabis; it intrudes law enforcement into medical decision-making.
It may eventually result in some handful of patients receiving cannabis preparations in some form--at some future time. It will certainly continue to keep the vast preponderance of patients in the legal category of criminals.
Meanwhile, it is in the best interests of all Minnesotans to push ahead politically and demand an end to cannabis prohibition.
When the herb is legal and easily available as it should be in a free, non-police-state society, then the Gordian knot will have been sliced. If you need cannabis for medical purposes, you can just go get it.
If you want to grow hemp for industrial purposes, go ahead and plant your fields with it. And if you want to smoke it for fun instead of drinking beer and beating up your buddies--then just roll yourself a big spliff and relax.
Were the contortions and maneuvers attempted by MPP for the past eight years in Minnesota some kind of conspiracy or Trojan Horse design to advance the cause of personal-use legalization? If so, they were wasted. It's not a good strategy anymore, if it ever was.
There are six states where both medicinal use and personal use have been placed on the ballot for voters to decide. In two of those states, Colorado and Washington, both medical use and personal use have been approved--but in four other states, medical use was approved and personal use defeated (California, Alaska, Nevada, Oregon.)
In Washington state, entities and persons with a vested interest in the existing medicinal-use set-up were outspoken opponents of the personal-use proposal (which did indeed have a lot of built-in flaws in it.)
Right now, public support for complete legalization is reflected in majorities measured in several national polls. To see Dayton and the prohibition lobby playing divide-and-conquer tactics against the patients and the advocates of medical cannabis reform is the real story here.
It was silly of MPP to try to create a front-group in Minnesota; the disguise was always transparent (the same graphic design down to typefaces and color scheme was used for both MPP and "Minnesotans for Compassionate Care," for instance) and the expenditure reports were public records.
Rep. Melin is an unconvincing in her indignation as the character of Sgt. Renault in the movie Casablanca when he exclaims "I am shocked, shocked, to learn that gambling is going on in this establishment"--while pocketing his own winnings. Without the ground-work and diligent lobbying done by MPP for the past four or five sessions, Carly Melin would not have any chance at all to pass a bill on this issue . . . but I will reiterate my original opinion that this bill's true effect will be deleterious to most of the patients, while helping very few IF ANY patients; consequently discrediting the reform and dissipating support for it, which was the law enforcement lobby's true motivation.
Carly, you can't serve two masters. In this case, sustaining the legal fiction upon which the Schedule I status of cannabis is based is going to require too great a sacrifice of Minnesotans' fundamental liberties and human rights. It would have been possible to stand up to the bullies with badges and STILL WIN THIS FIGHT---but you let yourself be intimidated, and the victims of those bullies must now once again find the doors of justice closed to them and the face of compassion turned away from them.

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    Sorensen, editor and proprietor of Bluestem Prairie, served as a New Media training and strategy consultant for the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party from October 2009 through mid-April 2010. She now serves clients in the business and nonprofit sectors.

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