Katie G. Nelson
Mesabi Daily News
ST. PAUL — The debate over medical marijuana has been front and center this legislative session, with the spotlight landing heavily on Rep. Carly Melin, a Hibbing DFLer who doggedly pushed the drug’s legalization for medicinal use since last spring.
But efforts by the 28-year-old, second term representative to allow patients suffering from serious medical conditions access to the drug have evoked several thorny exchanges between Gov. Mark Dayton and law enforcement officials, who aligned in opposition of the proposal.
With medical marijuana continuing to take precedence this session despite resistance from Gov. Dayton, some around the Capitol are questioning if Melin is pushing her luck with the governor and her party — sacrificing her future political power for the sake of commandeering the emotionally charged bill.
Will the representative experience long-lasting reverberations at the Capitol for going rogue on the issue? Or will she be celebrated as a champion of sick and ill Minnesotans?
Observations around the Capitol suggest she could face both.
Blocked attempts and growing frustration
Melin took up the fight to legalize medical marijuana last summer after meeting Amelia Weaver, a young girl from Hibbing whose medical condition causes her to have up to 30 seizures a day.
Amelia’s parents, Angie and Josh Weaver, believe there’s evidence that marijuana — in oil or pill form — could potentially prevent their daughter’s seizures and help her regain cognitive skills.
But because medicinal marijuana is illegal in Minnesota, the Weavers were forced to make a decision: Convince political leadership to support medical cannabis for their daughter or move to a state where pot is legal.
Melin decided to help them fight.
Though the unflinching and sometimes defiant attorney admitted that she usually doesn’t get too invested in her legislation, this subject was different.
“I’d say medical marijuana would be the exception just because of the family in Hibbing and I know how much they have at stake. I have taken a lot on and really wanted to get that done,” Melin said.
Hitting brick walls
Early in the session, Melin made a series of attempts to gain support for her bill (H.F. 1818) but continued to hit roadblocks from law enforcement officials who said they were fundamentally opposed to it. Dayton, who once threatened veto power of the bill, said he was taking his queue from law officials on the issue.
“The governor has very strongly indicated that he’s basing his decision on the opinion of the law enforcement,” Melin said.
Despite meeting with law enforcement associations numerous times and gutting her bill to appease the opposition, Melin was still unable to find common ground on the subject.
“I just kept hitting brick walls,” she said.
Both Melin and medical marijuana advocates were becoming more and more frustrated with the situation, and eventually advocates began coordinating their own rallies to put pressure on Dayton.
In early March, they gathered outside Dayton’s mansion requesting to talk with the governor. And surprisingly, Dayton let them in.
Some say that meeting was the turning point in the medical marijuana debate — a time when Dayton relented on the issue that he was so opposed to, and ultimately giving the medical marijuana movement its own pair of legs.
“I think that’s where the tide probably changed, and they became very angry with him,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook said. “If there was an event that caused the advocates to really turn on him, I think it’s when he allowed them in.”
Soon after, Dayton proposed his own kind of compromise; fund a $2.2 million Mayor Clinic study to evaluate the effects of CDB (a marijuana derivative that doesn’t have psychotropic properties) on children with epilepsy. The proposed study would provide 200 children access to a potential treatment and take up to eight months to begin and years to complete.
Though some viewed Dayton’s idea as a compromise, others said the study was proposed to stall pot legislation.
“To me, I’m not going to have my daughter wait two to five more years to get medicine to get help when we know it’s working other places,” Angie Weaver said at a press conference.
Mounting criticism from legislators also poured in.
“Politically speaking, Gov. Dayton can do whatever he wants,” Rep. Andrea Kieffer RWoodbury, said at a press conference in early April. “I think this is a political thing. I think he’s afraid to take this stance publicly.”
“The socalled ‘Dayton compromise’ — the purpose of that was giving politicians political cover. It does nothing for the families of Minnesota,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, RFarmington.
Soon after, supporters accused Dayton of suggesting that parents buy marijuana illegally to help their children during that same meeting at the mansion.
Those accusations only further illustrated to medical marijuana supporters that Dayton was out of touch with the needs of patients and their families.
The group Minnesotans for Compassionate Care along with the Marijuana Policy Project also launched a series of ads featuring family members of sick children and blasting Dayton.
Melin, who had worked with Minnesotans for Compassionate Care on the issue, said she “honestly had no idea” the group was launching those television attacks.
The Hibbing representative has received a significant amount of criticism for launching the effort to legalize medical marijuana, despite her more demure demeanor around the subject in recent weeks.
Fellow Iron Range Rep. Jason Metsa, DFLVirginia said in March that the issue was being “demonized” by law enforcement and Melin was bearing much of the blowback for bringing it forward.
“Rep. Melin has extended the olive branch and all she’s getting is push back,” Metsa said.
Other lawmakers, including DFLers, have spoken about their party’s lack of interest in the issue, stating there was neither the time nor the will to approve medical marijuana at the Legislature this session.
“This has not been the top priority of the session — we’ve said that from the very beginning,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFLMinneapolis, said at a media event earlier this session. “Good luck to everybody, but we’ve worked pretty hard to reach a compromise and we haven’t been able to get there yet.”
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin agreed that medical marijuana wasn’t top on the list of party priorities this year because of pressing issues like raising the minimum wage, middle class tax relief, emergency heating assistance for struggling families and the Safe and Supportive Schools Act.
“While the legalization of medical marijuana is an important issue that needs to be examined from all sides — from the position of the advocates, law enforcement and the medical community — it shouldn’t overshadow the great work already done and those items still left to do,” Martin said in a statement.
Other leaders went further, penning an opinion column in the StarTribune voicing opposition of the measure. Those authors were commissioners of state departments like Health, Human Services and Public Safety.
Melin said she was “caught off guard” by the lack of support on the issue, especially from commissioners who had never reached out to her before publicly opposing her bill.
“I was pretty surprised to then hear the commissioners of those state agencies state in the Star Tribune that they were opposed to medical marijuana because they never had those discussions with me,” she said.
So looking back, does she think she pushed too hard and too publicly to advocate for medical marijuana?
“I know the governor feels that way,” Melin said.
But because the majority of Minnesotans support the legalization of medical marijuana (68 percent according to an April KSTPTV poll) Melin said she felt like she was just bringing forward the will of the people.
“When there’s almost 70 percent public support — I think that’s what’s pushing medical marijuana. I don’t think any legislator or politician should make this about themselves and what’s better for their political career.”
Melin also said her age and freshman legislator status is a nonfactor in the issue.
“I don’t think it would’ve made a difference if I had been there three years or 30 years. I think the public support is there and the Legislature just continues to sit on its hands and not do anything about it,” she said.
New life in movement
New life was breathed into the medical marijuana debate in the last few weeks with Sen. Scott Dibble, DFLMinneapolis, taking Melin’s bill to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Friday. It was passed by a 73 vote and will be heard in more committees next week.
And, according to Bakk, there are enough votes in the Senate to pass a bill legalizing medical marijuana.
“Absolutely. We have the votes to pass it,” Bakk said adding that Dayton’s comment that legislators were “hiding behind the desks” on the issue was a sign that the governor wants the Senate to vote on medical marijuana.
But the possibility of a reemergence of medical marijuana garnered a somewhat subdued response from Melin last week, who stated she was “immensely” frustrated “because of the lack of action by the government.”
“Instead we just sit on our hands and say, ‘This session isn’t long enough,’ and ‘We don’t have time to help you,’ she said.
“It’s made me a bit disillusioned with the political process,” Melin added.
Despite that frustration, Melin said she is planning on running for reelection, along with Dayton, in November.
A Dayton spokesperson said the governor would not impose any political repercussions toward Melin now or in the future.
Despite the political spectacle around the issue, the immense frustration and the stress, Melin said her push to legalize medical marijuana is still, and always was, about the patients who need treatment.
And for Angie Weaver, that made all the difference.
“I feel like (Melin) is passionate about helping our daughter and about people who are suffering in Minnesota. I feel like she’s fighting the good fight and I hope she can get something passed for everyone who is suffering, but especially for Amelia.”
Weaver said her family plans on moving to Colorado if Melin does not pass the bill.