From Medical To Recreational: Lessons From Minnesota, Colorado In Marijuana Debate

Nov 9, 2018, 10:15 PM | Updated: 10:43 pm

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota – In Minnesota, opponents of medical marijuana have generally gone quiet since a law permitting the drugs was passed four years ago.

“I think that a lot of the fears have been dissipated,” said Dr. Jay Westwater, CEO of Minnesota Medical Solutions.

He runs one of only two companies allowed to legally grow, process and sell marijuana products.

But there are echoes in Minnesota of concerns raised in Utah: Does approval of medical marijuana create political momentum that could push a state toward legalization of recreational marijuana?

Surprisingly, Kim Bemis, who’s organizing a Minnesota group to lobby against recreational marijuana, actually believes Minnesota’s law allowing medical marijuana is a good thing.

“I wouldn’t undo it, no, because I think we have done a good job of writing a very strong law,” said Bemis, who chairs a group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana in Minnesota. What he does worry about is the growth of marijuana as a big industry, and he believes approval of medical marijuana may have nudged Minnesota more in that direction.

Culture change

Pro-marijuana activist Maren Schroeder views that nudge approvingly.

“I think when people start to see that the sky doesn’t fall under medical, then it’s OK to start having that discussion about adult use and kind of limiting the criminalization, and putting people in jail over marijuana,” said Schroeder who co-founded a group called Sensible Minnesota.

Several statewide political candidates in Minnesota endorsed recreational marijuana this year. Bemis worries about where that could lead.

“I don’t care if someone smokes a joint in their home,” Bemis said. “We just don’t really want to have commercial marijuana available in the state of Minnesota.”

That view was echoed by Andy Bohlen, the police chief of Faribault, Minnesota who chairs Minnesota’s Violent Crime Coordinating Council. He said “Big Marijuana” is growing into a replay of “Big Tobacco.”

Police chief Andy Bohlen chairs Minnesota’s Violent Crime Coordinating Council.

“We’ve fought this battle for many years against companies that target kids for smoking tobacco,” Bohlen said. “You still see the ads on TV. Are we going to have the same fight 10 years down the road with marijuana?”

Bohlen and other critics point to Colorado, which legalized medical marijuana in 2000. Did that decision create a political climate of acceptance for marijuana that eventually led to approval of recreational marijuana?

“I think it definitely changes the culture around marijuana in a state,” said Mike Van Dyke of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment. “I think as you legalize medical marijuana, it becomes more accepted.”

Door to recreation?

When Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, many critics worried it would lead to much higher rates of marijuana use by teenagers.

“I think that has not been what we’ve seen in Colorado,” Van Dyke said. “What we’ve seen in Colorado is really … adolescent marijuana use has been pretty flat since 2005.”

Still, other data from Colorado seems to strengthen the hand of marijuana critics.

A recent report on Colorado’s marijuana situation by HIDTA, the Federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, has been circulated by critics in Minnesota. It says overall marijuana use in Colorado went up 45 percent since recreational pot was legalized in 2012. Marijuana-related emergency room visits went up 52 percent. Traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled to 138 killed in 2017.

However, marijuana use is not the biggest killer Colorado highways.

“Our data shows that alcohol remains the number one substance detected in fatal car accidents, with marijuana as a distant second,” said Dominique Mendiola, director of marijuana coordination for the Colorado Governor’s Office. But there are other worrisome statistics in Colorado.

“We have seen impacts,” Van Dyke said. “We’ve seen increases in hospitalizations (that are marijuana-related). We’ve seen increases in child poisonings. Also, we’ve seen in Colorado that we have a higher number of pregnant women using marijuana than in other states where there’s not this access to marijuana. So I definitely think there’s a public health risk, and something to think about for Utah.”

Of course, there’s no certainty that Minnesota – or Utah – will ever follow Colorado’s lead. Medical marijuana may, or may not, be a step in the direction of legalized pot-smoking.

“I don’t think that’s a good argument for restricting patient access to a potentially life-changing and life-saving medication,” Schroeder said.

Nevertheless, Bohlen is concerned that pressure is building.

“Once you open the door and allow some part of it,” the police chief said, “so even if we allow the liquids, the oils and the pills, there’s always a lobbyist push to allow smoking the vegetative marijuana.”

Bohlen admits, though, it’s a national trend. Regardless of what Minnesota or Utah does, polls show momentum across the country shifting more and more in favor of marijuana. Bohlen believes it’s a dangerous political drift that’s being pushed by a marijuana industry whose product is markedly different from the days of love-ins and pot parties in the hippie era.

“I think the new stuff that’s being produced, the THC levels are much higher,” Bohlen said. “So the effects of the marijuana are being felt a lot stronger than they would’ve been 30 years ago.”

This is the third in a three-part series exploring lessons learned on medical marijuana from other states.

PART 1: What Utah Can Expect From Medical Marijuana, Through The Lens Of Minnesota’s Experience

PART 2: What Minnesota Has Learned About Cost, Side Effects Of Medical Marijuana

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From Medical To Recreational: Lessons From Minnesota, Colorado In Marijuana Debate