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Minnesota medical marijuana task force has ‘no real purpose’

ST. PAUL — Members of a task force charged with evaluating Minnesota’s medical cannabis program say the group is ineffective and poorly run. It didn’t even meet for a two-year stretch.

The state set up the task force when it legalized medical marijuana in 2014. State law said the group would hold hearings to assess patient experiences, access and other issues.

The program is not working for many of the patients who need it. High prices have pushed many patients into the black market and the state’s two growers have lost millions because of a strict tax structure.

The task force met several times over its first few years. But after its meeting in January 2017, it did not meet again for two years. This left members frustrated and patients without a voice.

“We were there because we thought our voices mattered and we were going to say something. It didn’t,” said Sarah Wellington, a medical marijuana patient who sits on the task force.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis Democrat on the task force, agreed. He said he would like to see the group strengthened or disbanded.

“It’s a coffee club … it has no real purpose,” Dibble said.

A Democratic state lawmaker and Gov. Tim Walz have discussed ways to revamp the task force.

High tensions and sparse attendance

Dibble said that tension between members was often high; supporters and opponents of the medical marijuana program were given seats on the task force. The task force was made up of lawmakers, health officials, doctors, patients and law enforcement.

Conflicts often boiled down to disputes over what the task force could do; the language in the law is somewhat vague. Some members thought the task force should recommend new qualifying conditions, for example. Others countered that they should not have that authority.

Dr. Charles Reznikoff, an addiction medicine doctor on the task force, said the group was nothing more than a venue for discussion.

“A lot of people mistake the task force as if we’re getting things done,” Reznikoff said. “We’re just a bunch of people that sit around a microphone and talk about cannabis.”

Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, sat on the task force in its first years. He said the meetings he attended were not taken seriously and had “very poor attendance.”

He later resigned from the body.

“I just thought really quite frankly … (it was) just kind of a misuse of my time,” Flaherty said.

Talk of a revamp

The woes of the task force have not gone unnoticed.

State Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, had authored a bill that would have required the task force to meet once a year. It also would have required the group to look at issues with patient access and affordability and recommend ways to address.

“We have an affordability issue and need this group to help do the work to keep this issue at the forefront,” Edelson said. Her bill did not get a hearing before the committee deadline passed at the Legislature.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is also aware of frustrations with the task force. He told the Pioneer Press that he has thought about turning it into a new group that will assess the program and also study full legalization.

“Maybe that might be the vehicle for us to reignite this (recreational marijuana) conversation that I was hoping the Senate would be willing to have,” Walz said. “We have not made any decision yet.”