The push to legalize marijuana fell short at the Minnesota Capitol this year, but supporters say political momentum is on their side as more states go that way.
"This day is coming," said state Rep. Jessica Hanson, DFL-Burnsville. First elected last year, Hanson previously led the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization, a nonprofit advocacy group. "The vast majority of cannabis users are simply hardworking Minnesotans who deserve our respect."
The Minnesota House approved legislation May 13 on a bipartisan vote to make marijuana use legal for all adults in the state. But the state Senate did not take up the bill, and the Legislature adjourned its regular session last week.
Republicans, who control the state Senate, have been slower to get behind full legalization, which is now backed by most prominent DFL politicians.
"I don't think it makes people have a better life," said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. "People who are drinking every day don't have a better life, people who are smoking pot every day don't have a better life."
The quickest political route to legalization would likely be control of state government by supportive DFLers.
"What we know for sure is that it's very unlikely to happen with Paul Gazelka as Senate leader," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said of his GOP counterpart in the Senate, who opposes legalization.
But even some critics see a sea change in societal attitudes. For the first time this year, Abeler, and most of his Republican colleagues, supported a major expansion of Minnesota's medical marijuana program: Enrollees in the program will now be allowed to smoke the raw cannabis flower.
"That was a big evolution for me," said Abeler, who also proposed reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
Chris Tholkes, director of Minnesota's Office of Medical Cannabis, said the raw cannabis program probably won't be operational until next spring, given the amount of preparation needed for what's expected to spike participation as much as three to four times the current enrollment. Inexpensive production related to the smokable flower is expected to dramatically bring down costs for adults in the program.
Meanwhile, 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. In most of those states, it was accomplished via citizen-driven statewide ballot initiatives, which the Minnesota Constitution does not allow. Minnesota lawmakers could vote to put the issue to a statewide constitutional referendum, but even most advocates say the state Constitution is not the place to dictate cannabis law.
"I don't think that's where it belongs. I think in our state we've realized that social policy doesn't belong in our Constitution," Hanson said.
While GOP control of the Senate routed legal marijuana this year, support and opposition does not fall neatly along partisan lines. Six House Republicans voted for the measure earlier this month, while a few DFLers were against it.
"We have to recognize that there's a large percentage of our population that uses cannabis recreationally and to ignore that is just doing an injustice to the people of our state," said Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, who supports legalization because he wants a system of regulation in place.
Rep. Keith Franke, a moderate Republican from St. Paul Park, voted for the bill despite qualms about the impact on people with substance abuse problems because, he said, "I want to be part of the conversation" as the issue advances.
Franke says he's been in recovery for more than 23 years. During the House debate, he amended the bill to steer the first 5% of tax revenue generated by marijuana directly into the state's substance abuse treatment fund.
Kim Bemis, chairman of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana Minnesota, said research shows adolescent use has increased in states that have legalized marijuana. "That was glossed over in testimony and that upset us a lot," he said.
Support for full legalization has become a mainstream position for Democrats. Gov. Tim Walz is in favor, as are Minnesota's two U.S. senators. As concerns about racial equity have come to the forefront in Democratic politics, advocates see legalizing marijuana as a way to reduce the toll of drug policing on communities of color.
"So many of our Black men, women and children have been incarcerated because of the prohibition on marijuana," said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul.
Four House Democrats voted against the legalization measure. Rep. Gene Pelowski, a retired schoolteacher from Winona, said he's worried about youth access to the drug, and questions around how employers can tell if employees are high in the workplace.
But Pelowski was also irked by what he saw as an attempt to "placate" activists associated with Minnesota's two legalization-based political parties, both of which managed to attain major-party status by fielding candidates who got more than 5% of the vote in statewide elections in 2018.
Fast forward to the 2020 legislative elections, and in a handful of key races won by Republicans, the margin of victory over the DFL candidate was smaller than the number of votes that went to pro-legalization party candidates. In other words, candidates running solely for the purpose of legalizing marijuana ended up inadvertently setting back their own cause.
"We would have been better off as a minor party," said Michael Ford, who got 5.28% of the vote in 2018 as the Legal Marijuana Now Party's candidate for state auditor. He's now the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of NORML, a national pro-legalization group.
Ford and other leaders in the movement believe that in at least a handful of those cases, Republican operatives recruited candidates for the two marijuana parties in hopes they would siphon votes from DFLers, which party leaders have disputed.
"The marijuana candidates weren't exactly stalwart, pro-marijuana candidates as much as they were operatives for a political party wanting to spoil an election," Pelowski said. And with the bill highly unlikely to become law before next year's legislative elections, he asked, "how does this stop this from happening again?"
Winkler said he and allies have worked avidly to build relationships and common ground with activists within the third-party movement around legalization. "I think I have built confidence that the House DFL and I are fully committed to their issue, and want to make it a reality," he said.
The November 2022 election is still 18 months off, which left some pundits wondering why House DFLers didn't wait until next year's session to take the legalization vote. That might make it more fresh in voters' minds.
But Winkler said the push will continue next year. "We could take steps to make sure there's a Senate vote next year," he said, which would put every senator on the record for constituents who are interested in the issue.
Even many legislators not on board with full legalization say they're probably in a losing battle.
"I do believe it's going to happen sometime, for better or worse," Abeler said. "You do see the momentum coming."
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042