The Face of Pot Politics: Why Don Haumant - and Some Legislators - Want Minnesota to Legalize Medical Marijuana

Published on
by
the Twin Cities Pioneer Press (Minnesota)

The Face of Pot Politics: Why Don Haumant - and Some Legislators - Want Minnesota to Legalize Medical Marijuana

by
Jason Hoppin

Don Haumant holds a number of medications he used to take before relying on medical marijuana to keep his pain in check. (Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin)

"Statistically, I'm supposed to be dead," says Don Haumant, 57, as he sits in his Minneapolis living room, the winter light coming in through half-closed shades.

The one-bedroom apartment is decorated with period furniture - "You might be comfortable on a mission chair," he offers a guest - and flourishes of 1950s and Hollywood memorabilia. Above the couch is a photograph of MGM's studio players from Tinseltown's golden era. Clark Gable anchors the shot.

"There's not a whole lot that can be done," said the onetime actor, his speech leisurely but his posture crisp. "That's why I've had to take it upon myself to do the things that are within my power to live a better life. And one of the things I've done is find the substances that are the most helpful and least damaging."

Haumant has liver disease and muscle pain, which he manages by smoking marijuana. He has done it with the knowledge of his doctors, and, while living in California, he did it legally.

But when he moved to Minnesota in 2002 to be nearer his boyhood home of Frederic, Wis., Haumant became an outlaw.

"It's much more of a stigma here," Haumant said. "In the circles that I travel, people are pretty much accepting of it, and public opinion is pretty much in favor of it. But still there are very strong forces here that consider me to be a criminal and an addict."

Haumant is one of the few advocates for a pair of medical marijuana bills moving through the Minnesota Legislature
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who will confess to breaking the law. The bills are expected on the floors of the House and Senate within weeks and come as President Barack Obama's administration has signaled a seismic shift in federal attitudes toward state medical marijuana laws.

But it may not be enough to bring Haumant in from the cold. Bowing to law enforcement concerns, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is expected to veto the bills if passed. If he does, Minnesota will mark a decade of Capitol debates about medical marijuana that have led nowhere.

"Sometimes that's the way it goes in the legislative process: Things take a long time," said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, chief sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. "Even if the governor vetoes this, I think we may have enough votes to override it. If that's the case, then we'll definitely take that path."

HELP WITH NAUSEA

Haumant has long battled a variety of ailments. As a youth, he was diagnosed with adolescent scoliosis and in 1981, while living in California, with hepatitis-B. In 1996, a friend who used medical marijuana suggested he try it.

He first bought marijuana at a San Francisco dispensary operated by noted marijuana activist Dennis Peron.

"It was like going to a bar. You could go to the Mexican bar, where you could buy Mexican dope. ... You could go to a separate bar (for different kinds of marijuana). And at that time, you could smoke it right on the premises," Haumant said.

The marijuana helped him overcome nausea related to his liver condition, which in turn has helped him put on weight. It also eases his muscle pain, allowing him to turn down prescriptions for powerful painkillers that are too taxing on his liver.

He told his doctor, whose only advice was not to hold the smoke in very long to avoid damage to his lungs.

A "supplier" provides him a "tenuous" connection to a substance he considers vital to his well-being. "I don't really have a good backup," he said. And Haumant said he won't buy drugs on a street corner.

"I'm sort of on marijuana maintenance. It keeps me going," Haumant said. "I like to live an independent life, and I think that my smoking marijuana has helped facilitate that. ... I would rather be a regular user of marijuana than pop four or five oxycodones a day, which I have done."

Supporters say marijuana helps cancer patients overcome the nauseating effects of chemotherapy and can stimulate the appetites of those suffering from HIV-related wasting disease. Some glaucoma sufferers use it for relief, as do many who suffer from pain.

The latest versions of the bill would require written certification from a doctor, allowing patients to obtain a registration card giving them access to marijuana purchased from a nonprofit registered with the state. Those dispensaries would not be allowed within 500 feet of a church or school.

That would put Minnesota among the minority of medical-marijuana states that license and oversee drug transactions through dispensaries. Users would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, or to grow as many as 12 plants.

The bill also lists and defines which medical conditions would qualify a patient for medical marijuana. "It would be one of the tightest laws on the books," Murphy said.

POPULAR SUPPORT, LARGE BARRIERS

Thirteen states have added medical-marijuana laws since California voters first approved them in 1996, and several others are weighing them. Voters have led the way in the debate, with eight of the 13 laws having been passed by popular vote. A wide majority of Minnesota voters appears to support such a change. In May 2008, a SurveyUSA poll found a solid 2-to-1 majority behind it.

But making it law here has hit a wall. Lately, that wall resembles Pawlenty, who has said he will stand with law enforcement in opposition to the bill.

While states can create exceptions in their drug laws, they cannot do so for federal prohibitions. That throws the use and distribution of medical marijuana into limbo - while legal in the state, federal authorities still could arrest and charge someone who sells or uses pot.

That strange legal position has propelled the argument over medical marijuana to the august halls of the U.S. Supreme Court, even while the Drug Enforcement Administration has carried out raids on state-approved dispensaries in California. The debate is an interplay of pot smokers, constitutional lawyers and agents with very large guns.

But last month, Attorney General Eric Holder might have opened the door for a change of heart from those who worry that setting up medical-marijuana dispensaries is to invite a federal crackdown.

Days after Obama was sworn in, the DEA engaged in 11 eyebrow-raising coordinated raids in California, where there is widespread suspicion that users with no legitimate medical condition have easy access to pot. The raids came despite Obama's campaign pledge that medical marijuana was a state issue into which the federal government should not tread.

Since then, there have been no further raids, and DEA representatives refuse to discuss them. During a Feb. 25 news conference, Holder was asked about the situation.

"Well, what the president said during the campaign, you will be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we will be doing here in law enforcement," Holder said.

On Wednesday, Obama nominated Gil Kerlikowske to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy as the nation's so-called drug czar. During his tenure as Seattle's police chief, Kerlikowske was known for emphasizing drug treatment over prosecution for small-scale drug crimes.

"I really believe that law enforcement needs to consider (Holder's comments) and calm down," Murphy said.

But they aren't changing the minds of top state law enforcement officials.

"(Holder's) got a memo that he received from the president, as I understand it," said Michael Campion, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. "I'm not sure it does anything. It doesn't change the law."

ANOTHER OPTION: CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT

But Chris De La Forest, a Republican former state lawmaker from Andover who is lobbying for the bill, thinks the new approach should change the debate. His group, the Marijuana Policy Project, met with law-enforcement officials in December and requested they notify the policy group of any objections.

"To date, law enforcement refuses to negotiate with us. They refuse to tell us what, in their opinion, is wrong with the bill and needs to be fixed," De La Forest said.

Campion said his opposition is well founded. He does not want to see Minnesota turn into another California and says a process is in place for approving medically necessary drugs - through the Food and Drug Administration.

"If there was legitimacy and there was an appetite and there was a need, you don't think these pharmaceutical companies would be all over that to make money?" Campion said.

He also pointed out that Minnesota's drug laws are not overly punitive and that the state has a fair, balanced approach to drug policy.

"I don't think I'm just a hysterical bureaucratic cop saying the sky is falling," he said.

Neither the American Medical Association nor the Minnesota Medical Association endorses medical marijuana, but several studies published in prominent medical journals have pointed to its benefits.

One comes from an unlikely source - the White House itself. A 1999 report commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy concluded:

"For patients who suffer simultaneously from severe pain, nausea and appetite loss, such as those with AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy, cannabinoid drugs" - such as marijuana - "might offer broad-spectrum relief not found in any other single medication."

And some medical groups, such as the Lymphoma Foundation of America and the American Public Health Association, have endorsed medical marijuana.

De La Forest is hopeful the legislative process can lead to a good bill, but he's keeping his options open. If Pawlenty continues to block it, he said, advocates would take their case directly to the voters.

"If it's determined that (the legislative) route is unavailable to us, then a constitutional amendment is something that will happen," De La Forest said.

For now, Haumant isn't optimistic the bill will pass this year.

"There are a lot of areas in rural Minnesota where this sort of thing is regarded as evil, with a capital 'e,' and so those legislators are down on it," Haumant said. "People are afraid."

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