Waiting for Wednesday

Advocates for medical marijuana are awaiting the results of the Nov. 2 election, which will factor into the success or failure of their causes.

Joanna McKee uses a vaporizer to get one of her daily doses of medical marijuana, June, 27, 2007, in Seattle. McKee has been using marijuana to relieve the pain caused by her back and leg problems. This fall, Washington state public servants will convene a series of meetings to answer the question: how much marijuana constitutes a two-month supply? The meetings are part of a serious attempt to shore up Washington's medical marijuana law, currently considered one of the weaker laws among 13 different states with medical marijuana protections.   (AP Photo/Andrei Pungovschi)

AP

Joanna McKee uses a vaporizer to get one of her daily doses of medical marijuana, June, 27, 2007, in Seattle. McKee has been using marijuana to relieve the pain caused by her back and leg problems. This fall, Washington state public servants will convene a series of meetings to answer the question: how much marijuana constitutes a two-month supply? The meetings are part of a serious attempt to shore up Washington’s medical marijuana law, currently considered one of the weaker laws among 13 different states with medical marijuana protections. (AP Photo/Andrei Pungovschi)

Kyle Potter

Dr. Philip Denney walked into an examination room in his Sacramento, Calif., office and sat across from a 19-year-old who complained of insomnia.

As Denney considered the teenâÄôs chains, piercings and tattoos, the patient asked him for a marijuana prescription.

DenneyâÄôs skepticism was confirmed by a quick look at his medical history. Denney declined the request, walked into the next room and rolled his eyes when he saw his next patient. Another one, he thought.

“It could have been his twin,” he said.

He was shocked to find this patient had an aggressive form of bone cancer and would likely die within a year. Denney wrote a prescription for marijuana to help him cope with the pain.

For more than a decade, legislators and activists in Minnesota have been fighting to legalize medical marijuana âÄî to give doctors the option of a controversial treatment Denney has been able to prescribe since 1996.

Pitted against law enforcement, concerned citizens and social stigma, proposed legislation nearly became law in 2009 but was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

To say the movement has lost steam in the past year would be an understatement.

National advocacy groups have shifted attention to other states, faced with a bleak outlook for passing legislation in MinnesotaâÄôs near future.

A champion departing

Tuesday, Oct. 26 was one of the last days Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, would spend in his office at the State Capitol. After 18 years in the Senate, Murphy is not seeking re-election.

Murphy has been the chief author of medical marijuana bills in the Senate for the past two legislative sessions.

“ItâÄôs not a conservative, liberal or independent type of issue,” he said. “ItâÄôs kind of common sense.”

A bill to protect patients using marijuana from criminal penalties has been introduced in both the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate every legislative session since 1995.

The effort broke through in 2009 when a bill passed in both legislative bodies for the first time.

Murphy and his team of co-authors and lobbyists made their case with the aid of testimonies from people whose lives marijuana had changed for the better âÄî stories so emotional, “even a statue of Abraham Lincoln is going to weep,” Murphy said.

Among the opponents who testified was Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council. Prichard warned of marijuanaâÄôs dangers and what legalization for medicinal purposes could lead to.

“While itâÄôs directed at medical issues âĦ we think the major impetus is an effort to legalize it more broadly, and that just has negative consequences,” Prichard said in an interview.

In the hours before the final vote, an amendment was added to restrict use to terminally ill patients. Had the bill passed, it would have established the strictest medical marijuana program in the country.

Pawlenty vetoed the bill days later, citing law enforcement opposition to the bill.

“Marijuana poses serious public safety and health risks,” Pawlenty wrote in the veto statement. “Legalized medicinal use could serve to compound these problems.”

By January 2010, Murphy was wrestling with whether to introduce a bill again.

“We decided to forego that futility and wait until things in the political spectrum change,” Murphy said.

Advocates and legislators began looking ahead to the governorâÄôs race and 2011. Heather Azzi, spokeswoman for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, a group that lobbied for medical marijuana legalization, said in February that a law was inevitable.

“We proved to them that this is going to happen,” Azzi said at the time.

Eight months later, itâÄôs not so certain.

âÄòWait and seeâÄô

Minnesota was once part of the Marijuana Policy ProjectâÄôs 2010 Strategic Plan âÄî as one of five states where it planned to pass medical marijuana bills in 2011.

The stateâÄôs name is now absent from that list. Minnesotans for Compassionate Care âÄî one of MPPâÄôs state chapters âÄî has folded. Contracts for MPP lobbyists in Minnesota werenâÄôt renewed.

“They have some real financial problems,” said Randy Asunma, a former lobbyist who worked on the 2009 bill in Minnesota. “Their fundraising was down significantly, and Minnesota got eliminated.”

“Unfortunately, right now itâÄôs a âÄòwait and see,âÄô” Bob Capecchi, an MPP legislative analyst, said of the situation in Minnesota. The results of the election will determine whether they push the issue with the next governor.

No gubernatorial promises

Republican candidate Tom Emmer voted against the 2009 bill in the House and has said on the campaign trail he supports Marinol, a pill with synthetic THC âÄî the most potent compound in marijuana.

Independent Tom Horner also supports Marinol as an alternative but said he may support medicinal marijuana as well, if production and distribution were controlled by medical institutions.

Advocates for medical marijuana argue that Marinol isnâÄôt effective for many patients.

Much like Pawlenty, Democratic nominee Mark Dayton has said he wonâÄôt support a bill that Minnesota law enforcement is uncomfortable with. ItâÄôs an issue Dayton “would consider with the Legislature next year,” deputy campaign manager Katie Tinucci wrote in an e-mail.

Law enforcement has opposed any legislation.

“We have not changed our position, nor are we interested in any attempts to compromise on a bill relative to this topic at this time,” Dave Pecchia, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, wrote in an e-mail.

MCPA opposed the 2009 bill, which it said would increase potential for drug abuse and provide more opportunities for criminals to profit.

Though Dayton has taken the same position as the outgoing governor, University of Minnesota senior Zach Tauer, president of the University chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said he sees the most potential with the Democratic candidate.

“I think Dayton is probably more likely than Pawlenty to go against law enforcement in that sense,” Tauer said.

Marijuana as medicine

“Despite the fact that [marijuana] has been used by human beings for 10,000 years with very little evidence of long-term harm, itâÄôs been caught up in this political maelstrom since the âÄô30s,” Dr. Philip Denney said.

Once a recreational marijuana user, Denney began studying its properties and use in medicine at the University of Southern California.

The FDAâÄôs classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug has made it nearly impossible to research the alleged medicinal properties of marijuana.

With the surge of medical marijuana laws across the nation, last November the American Medical Association called on the FDA to review its classification of the drug.

What little research has been done is insufficient to support or counter claims of marijuanaâÄôs medicinal value, the AMA statement said.

Hamline University public policy professor David Schultz said the advocatesâÄô key to passing a law is having the support of Minnesota medical institutions.

“Cancer patients will help, but youâÄôre going to have to get some organized interests to offset the law enforcement,” Schultz said. “You need that combination.”

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virgina, said he doubts heâÄôll introduce a bill when the next legislative session begins. Rukavina was the chief author of the 2009 House bill, but said economic and education issues trump medical marijuana on his priority list this year.

Despite the lack of progress since January, Murphy is still confident a bill will be passed, and soon.

“I just canâÄôt see a scenario where âĦ we canâÄôt get this done next year,” he said.