Minneapolis Medical Pot Issue May Go to Court

September 01, 2004

Troy Pieper, Pulse of the Twin Cities

A grassroots organization has the necessary signatures to place a medical marijuana question on the November ballot, the Minneapolis Elections Office confirmed Monday, but its supporters still have a fight on their hands.The Minneapolis City Council has voted not to allow the proposed charter amendment on the ballot, and local and national advocates for reform of marijuana laws say they may have to take the issue to court.

“We are determined to fight this, and it is extremely likely that we will have to do it through litigation,” said Neal Levine, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that helped fund the ballot initiative. 

The council’s August 20 decision was a blow for the nonprofit Citizens for Harm Reduction (COHR), the local organization whose volunteers have spent months gathering signatures for the petition.

Marijuana can be used as pain relief for sufferers of diseases like cancer or glaucoma. The issue of allowing marijuana as a prescribed treatment has become a front line in the movement to reform drug laws.

COHR’s mission, according to their website, is “working to reduce harms caused by the United States’ failed drug policies through education, legislative action, and citizen initiatives.” The group’s proposed amendment calls for the licensing and regulating of “a reasonable number of medicinal marijuana distribution centers in the city of Minneapolis as is necessary to provide services to patients who have been recommended medicinal marijuana by a medical or osteopathic doctor licensed to practice in the state of Minnesota to the extent permitted by state and federal law.”

The group’s members collected more than 12,000 signatures from Minneapolis residents, but the city’s elections office only verified 7,571 — 203 less than what the law requires for a charter amendment to make it on the ballot. The group’s volunteers spent last week and the weekend to get the rest, which were submitted and certified Monday.

COHR coordinator Jason Samuels said this initiative sends a clear message that the voters of Minneapolis do not believe that seriously ill citizens should be denied access to marijuana to ease their pain and suffering.

No matter how many signatures were gathered, Charter Commission Chair Jim Bernstein said the petition is “manifestly unconstitutional,” because the distribution or use of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, is not legal in the state of Minnesota.

“If it conflicts with federal or state law,” Bernstein said, “then we can’t sanction it.” Samuels, however, said the amendment is conditional. “Its language goes into effect only when the current laws regarding medical marijuana change.”

Samuels also cited Minnesota’s THC Therapeutic Research Act, which provides criminal protection to researchers working on medicinal marijuana. “We are furthering that policy,” he said.

COHR notes on its website that neither the city nor the state has a referendum or initiative process, so proposing a charter amendment would serve to let the people vote on medicinal marijuana.

Councilmember Scott Benson, Ward 11, said that the amendment is not appropriate to add to the city’s charter, because the charter is supposed to be a general document.

“A framework, like the constitution,” he said, “not a specific legislative piece. That kind of detail does not exist anywhere else in the document.” Bernstein, who says he supports medicinal marijuana, said that the issue would be better taken up by the state legislature, or as Lisa Goodman, Ward 7 councilmember, said she will propose, a city council resolution. 

“I think [COHR is] really trying to bring the attention of the government to this issue, to other legislative bodies, not to change the charter,” Benson said. Bernstein called the initiative a way to get around the fact that Minneapolis has no referenda. In his comments to the Intergovernmental Relations Committee of the City Council, he said that “trying to circumvent the obvious fact that this provision is contrary to Minnesota law by inserting an ‘activation clause’ is a clever ploy but is clearly bad public policy and sets a potentially disastrous precedent.”

But Samuels said that the charter commission should not have approved the language of the proposed amendment if they were later going to find that language inappropriate for an amendment to the city charter. “It is a subjective decision whether or not the subject matter is more appropriate for ordinance enactment. [The council] doesn’t like the outcome, so they’re changing the rules.” Ward 6 councilmember Dean Zimmerman and Ward 9 councilmember Gary Schiff also called the decision undemocratic. “The people deserve the right to vote on this issue,” said Zimmerman.

“For eight members of the council to say they are right and everyone else is wrong,” said Samuels, “is a slap in the face to democracy, the residents who signed the petition and the people who did the work.”

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