Medical marijuana patients, advocates and supporters delivered flowers to Minn. Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday, protesting legislation they say falls far too short.
A bag of medical marijuana. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
MINNEAPOLIS — Medical marijuana patients and advocates delivered 33 flowers to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s mansion in St. Paul on Friday to protest the severely limited medical marijuana legislation the governor signed into law on Thursday.
The flower delivery and protest were organized by the medical marijuana advocacy group Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, who hope to raise awareness about the seriously ill Minnesotans who will still not be able to legally access medical marijuana under the new law.
Although the new medical marijuana law is expected to positively impact about 5,000 Minnesotans, Gov. Dayton’s insistence, per the recommendation of law enforcement, that medical marijuana only be legalized in oil and pill forms for a limited group of patients means that at least 33,000 people in the state will continue to go without legal access to medical marijuana.
“Many seriously ill Minnesotans and their families have been waiting a long time to reach this point,” Heather Azzi, political director for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, said at a press conference held by the organization on Friday. “The new law holds promise for many seriously ill Minnesotans, but it also leaves many behind.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of Minnesotans suffering from truly debilitating conditions who will not be allowed to access medical marijuana under the new law,” Azzi continued. “The legislature must come back next session ready to expand upon this bill so that all Minnesotans who could benefit from medical marijuana are able to access it.”
In addition to the concerns about the limitations on how patients are legally allowed to consume their medicine, patients and advocates have expressed concerns and disappointment that the legislation fails to provide medical marijuana access to individuals suffering from intractable pain, nausea, wasting and post-traumatic stress disorder, as those conditions were not included in the final legislation.
There was one question that seemed to be on the minds of everyone outside the governor’s mansion: How can the government justify providing relief to some, while denying it to others who have equally catastrophic and debilitating medical conditions?
United we stand
Jessica Hauser’s son, Wyatt, suffers from epilepsy — a condition that is helped by medical marijuana in non-smokable forms such as cannabidiol, or CBD, oil. Though Wyatt will be able to legally access medical marijuana under the new law, Hauser attended Friday’s protest to stand with other mothers who are still fighting to legalize the substance for their children, as well as the adult patients who are not protected.
“I’m grateful that this law may help my son, but disheartened that it won’t help so many others,” Hauser said. “These moms’ children and adult patients with debilitating conditions are just as deserving of effective medical treatment as my child. I hope legislators will improve this law next year so that every sick person who could benefit from medical marijuana will have the right to do so.”
Heather Kainz, of Duluth, Minn., and Shelly Olander, of Brainerd, Minn., also attended Friday’s rally. They spoke about their children’s severe medical conditions and pleaded with the governor and state Legislature to work as quickly as possible to provide relief for all those who could benefit from medical marijuana, especially their children who suffer from conditions that the drug has been found to be an effective treatment for.
Kainz’s two-year-old son, Parker, has a painful movement disorder stemming from a congenital brain malformation. His condition is not covered by the new medical marijuana law, since intractable pain isn’t covered. Olander’s six-year-old son, Lincoln, who suffers from a mitochondrial disease that causes severe nausea, wasting and vomiting, also will not be able to access medical marijuana because nausea and wasting are not covered.
“Medical marijuana won’t cure my six-year-old, but we hoped it would ease his persistent nausea and quell the vomiting associated with it,” Olander said. “I am heartbroken that conditions such as his were excluded from the final language. We will continue to fight for my son and the tens of thousands of others across the state who will not be able to use the medicine that could help them.”
Olander described the legislation as “bittersweet,” saying, “I’m happy that some of my friends might finally get the relief they need, but so many others, such as my son, will not. We are saddened by Gov. Dayton’s decision to put law enforcement associations’ interests ahead of patients’ and their families’.”
The lingering influence of law enforcement
What’s especially difficult for some of the patients who are still without access to medical marijuana is that it wasn’t until in the last few weeks of the legislative session that it was clear how influential law enforcement was not only to the governor, but to other legislators involved in the creation of the bills, such as Rep. Carly Melin.
Although Melin was the House representative who first helped to introduce a medical marijuana bill last May that was more inclusive, medical marijuana patient and advocate Patrick McClellan, who suffers from mitochondrial myopathy — a rare, genetic muscular disorder that causes severe and painful spasms — says in retrospect that Melin appears to have only been on board with medical marijuana legalization because helping children is a strategic political move.
“Carly Melin never spoke to adult patients,” McClellan said. “It pisses me off that she never talked to us or consented with us.”
He continued, saying that even if all Melin wanted to do was pass a law for children only, the medical marijuana community would have helped her. He says Melin should have been upfront about her intentions.
On May 1, McClellan and medical marijuana advocate Joni Whiting, who lost her daughter to skin cancer, were at the State Capitol. They thought they would be meeting with Melin, but that was the day that Melin divided the state’s medical marijuana patients by what appears to be their age, and introduced a new, more restrictive medical marijuana program that was essentially a medical marijuana CBD trial.
Adults who could benefit from medical marijuana were not in attendance, since the bill essentially didn’t do anything for them. While McClellan and Whiting sat outside of Room 125 at the Capitol, he says Jim Frank of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association walked by. After a brief conversation, McClellan gleaned just how far law enforcement was willing to go to keep marijuana illegal.
Whiting was talking about how she had leftover marijuana after her daughter’s death, and asked Frank if she could have called the police department to pick up the drugs. Frank said yes, she could have called and said someone dropped off drugs at my home and I don’t want them, and an officer would pick them up without a problem. But then Frank looked at McClellan and said an officer would pick up the drugs no questions asked, unless that person had previously admitted to being a criminal.
McClellan says he asked Frank if he was likely to have his door broken down by law enforcement, since he has publicly testified to using marijuana for medicinal purposes, and asked if a law enforcement officer like Frank would bail him out. Frank responded by saying that he would give McClellan the best seat in the jailhouse, which McClellan says he perceived as a direct threat.
Concerned for his safety, McClellan requested his DMV records and discovered that on April 26, 2013, the St. Paul Police Department had accessed his private data, which was five days before McClellan testified at the Capitol for the first time about his medical marijuana use. He has since been advised to file a report with the Ramsey County District Attorney and the St. Paul Police Department’s Internal Affairs Department.
Other medical marijuana patients and advocates who have testified in recent years are currently in the process of requesting their records, so MintPress was unable to determine whether this was an isolated incident. But given that law enforcement’s long-standing feelings toward marijuana and continued push to enforce federal prohibition laws across the country, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that law enforcement in Minnesota would be upset about this law as well.
“I’m not going to participate”
What’s so concerning for patients like McClellan, is that while he does qualify to participate in the new medical marijuana program, he currently doesn’t use oils, which he would be required to do under the new law. But using a leafy version of the substance while enrolled in the medical marijuana program can result in a 90-day jail sentence, $1,000 fine and removal from the medical program for life.
McClellan told MintPress that since he doesn’t know how he’s going to respond to the oils, he doesn’t think he’s going to enroll in the program, as getting caught with leafy marijuana in the state carries less of a penalty for those who are not in the medical marijuana program. Once he determines how oils affect him, he may eventually enroll.
Cassie Traun has Crohn’s disease and has been in remission for the past five years — something she attributes to medical marijuana use. She also doesn’t know if she’s going to enroll in the medical marijuana program because she combines leafs and oils to help her medical condition.
Traun and McClellan told MintPress that Minnesota Commissioner of Health Ed Ehlinger, who has been tasked with running the state’s medical marijuana program, is going to decide the medical marijuana recipes that correlate with each medical condition. Both said this is concerning, since patients often develop strain tolerance and a single strain may not effectively treat every patient.
For example, McClellan said that his condition falls under the multiple sclerosis category, which would include a 50-50 mix of CBD and THC. But he says such a prescription would impede his ability to function.
Another concern brought up was that the use of oils in a vaporizer can be dangerous, since the oils are so heavily concentrated. And as Whiting, the mother who lost her daughter to cancer, pointed out, it would be dangerous for a cancer patient surrounded by oxygen machines to light up a vaporizer.
Still, Azzi, of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, says she and the other medical marijuana legalization advocates remain optimistic and open-minded, but want to make sure state lawmakers know they are not going away anytime soon.
The fight of their lives
Janessa Lea has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome — a rare and painful illness that essentially affects the collagen in her skin, joints and blood vessels. Lea has to wear a brace around her knee when she walks to keep her patella from dislocating, and she wears braces around her fingers to keep them from bending “past the point of no return.”
As part of her medical condition, Lea says she suffers from other conditions such as osteoarthritis, muscle issues, poor circulation, tremors, a lesion on her brain and clostridium difficile, or C. Diff, which is a bacterial infection people can contract from taking too many antibiotics.
Lea says it took her doctors a while to figure out what was wrong with her, but until they figured it out, they prescribed 150 milligrams of oxycodone and morphine per day.
“I was a zombie for four years,” Lea said, tearing up as she described how her bed-ridden lifestyle prevented her from spending time with her daughter, who is now almost 7 years old.
“I owe my life to a plant,” she said, adding that medical marijuana allows her to get stronger and smile.
Lea’s slew of medical conditions doesn’t qualify her for the state’s medical marijuana program, but she says she is now fighting for more than just her own life, as her daughter was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome about 18 months ago.
“I don’t want her to turn to [oxycodone and morphine] the way I was,” Lea said.
While no one attending the protest spoke about how medical marijuana helped them with their PTSD, a mother and daughter shared empirical stories about why the law needed to include help for veterans.
Riah Roe shared the story of her high school friend, Randal Johnson of North Dakota, and said the reason the veteran who served in Afghanistan couldn’t be in attendance was because he killed himself. She said veterans deserve more and the community should come together to create a plan that benefits all patients.
Tonya Bonnifield’s husband, Allan, served in the Minnesota National Guard and developed PTSD after an extended tour in Iraq from 2005 to 2006. She says her husband has had several flashbacks and is afraid of garbage trucks and trashcans, and will swerve his car into oncoming traffic to avoid them.
Bonnifield said she often is woken up in the middle of the night because Allan is hitting her or choking her, or diving on the floor dodging “shells” because he thinks he is still in Iraq. Though Bonnifield’s husband hasn’t tried medical marijuana, she says her daughter, Roe, helped her see it as a potentially life-saving substance.
“These people fight for us and are still fighting for us,” Bonnifield said. “We need to fight for them.”
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