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Capitol Chatter: Medical marijuana took a strange trip

ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton said early in the year that medical marijuana would not pass the Minnesota Legislature this year.

Dayton said that there would not be enough time in a short legislative session (it began Feb. 25) to reach a compromise between law enforcement officers who oppose medical marijuana and those who support the concept.

Instead of legalizing it, Dayton proposed an extensive clinical study by Mayo Clinic. He also wanted a report about how it is working in the 21 states that already allow medical marijuana.

Some children would have been helped by his plan, Dayton said, but it went nowhere.

Ironically, even though Dayton said he opposed bills introduced early in the session written to help patients who say nothing else can help them, he was the eventual inspiration for a final deal on the subject that was reached Thursday.

Much like the route taken by a successful Vikings stadium bill, getting medical marijuana to the verge of passing featured many fits and starts, with the concept looking dead at points. Legislative leaders needed to get involved for the measure to make progress.

It all started a year ago, when the 2013 session was nearing an end and Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, began floating the idea about pushing a medical marijuana bill.

Melin’s inspiration was another Hibbing resident, Amelia Weaver. The girl’s parents, Angie and Josh Weaver, told the lawmaker about her seizures, up to 50 a day. Marijuana could help ease the situation, they told Melin.

Despite Dayton’s insistence on getting law enforcement officers on board, Melin and Senate bill author Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, pushed ahead.

Not much happened on the issue for a while, at least in public.

Melin’s bill got a House committee hearing, and passed after Angie Weaver and others told their emotional stories.

The Weavers, joined by many others who think marijuana can help them or a loved one, have almost lived a that Capitol lobbying for the Melin and Dibble bills. Their testimony generated plenty of support, but it was the governor who really got things moving, whether he meant to or not.

Stuck at home in a body cast from a hip injury and resulting surgery, Dayton at one point told reporters during a conference call that he was told that marijuana was available on street corners in every Minnesota city. That infuriated medical marijuana supporters, who read his comments as saying he was advising them to buy the plant illegally.

The governor’s comments inspired medical marijuana advocates to work harder.

Dayton invited medical marijuana advocates into the governor’s residence to discuss the issue. They left with mixed feelings, glad he listened but upset that he still opposed their cause because police did not support it and because it had not received thorough medical tests.

Shortly before the Legislature began its Easter-Passover recess in April, Dayton complained that legislators were “hiding behind their desks” on the marijuana issue.

That comment caused Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, to react. He ordered up a Senate committee hearing before the recess. The first Senate committee passed the bill soon after lawmakers returned to work, setting off a domino effect of Senate committee votes in favor of the measure.

As the Senate bill began advancing, House leaders opted to bypass most committees in that chamber, where the Melin bill had stalled, and sent its version of the bill to one last committee.

By then, the House bill had been trimmed back to include fewer patients and just one marijuana distribution site in Minnesota. Law enforcement officials said a more widespread distribution system would be difficult to control.

The House plan also banned the use of plant marijuana, while the Senate one allowed crushed marijuana plants to be used in vaporizing machines.

The Senate bill retained its original 55-site distribution system and other things Dayton did not like.

The two chambers overwhelmingly passed their bills as the session’s end came into sight, setting up a series of private meetings among Melin, Dibble and others.

On Thursday, they announced their final deal that basically was the pared-back House bill with more distribution sites added and a few other changes. A short conference committee meeting resulted in the bill passing on to the House and Senate.

The medical marijuana bill took a path unlike routine bills that usually go through committees with no leadership involvement. But on big issues like marijuana and the stadium, state leaders usually need to give things a nudge, or a major push.

The difference in this case is that Dayton comments may have given medical marijuana the strength it needed to reach the final compromise.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.