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The case for decriminalizing marijuana in Minnesota — and what it means to do so

REUTERS/Anthony Bolante
In many ways, the time is more than ripe to legalize marijuana.
Is it time to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Minnesota? The answer may be yes, but when and how it is done in Minnesota is a critical issue.

schultz portrait

David Schultz

Two parties in the November 2018 elections received major party status on the promise of legalizing marijuana. Gov.-elect Tim Walz is apparently supportive of the same, along with several legislators. State Fair and other polls in Minnesota also support legalization of its recreational use, paralleling national polls that find more than 60 percent of the American public favor this. The time seems right to act.

In many ways, the time is more than ripe. Twenty-five years ago I was among the first to argue for decriminalization of drug use. In “Rethinking Drug Criminalization Policies” (Texas Tech Law Review, 1993). I argued that the then-three-decade-long war on drugs had failed miserably and that it was time to shift away from a drug policy that criminalizes its use to one that treats it as a public health problem.

Save resources, reduce disparities

That thesis was true then, and even more so now. My argument then addressed not simply marijuana but all forms of illegal drugs because while there is no evidence that the use of marijuana poses a public health problem, other drugs do. Not a problem then, or at least not apparent, were the health dangers arising from opioid use, which is now an epidemic, posing a far greater problem than the recreational use of marijuana. Add up the costs of police enforcement, court time, and other expenses and one can argue that Minnesota would save significant resources in legalizing recreational marijuana. In addition, as I pointed out earlier this year in a Huffington Post article, the criminalization of its use has failed. Its prohibition has not worked and it has produced racial disparities with lasting effects on society, including in Minnesota.

Marijuana use is effectively already being decriminalized in Minnesota. Over time more and more conditions are being allowed under the medical marijuana law, including, most recently, Alzheimer’s disease. That law has acclimated Minnesotans gradually to its use, but of course there is also a generational shift going on that does not shun its use. One can make a libertarian argument for its recreational use that parallels John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” arguments that it is not the business of society what one does so long as it does not affect others. However, the stronger arguments to make are that legalizing its use is consistent with the “One Minnesota” Walz promises in order to address disparities that divide the state. Criminalizing recreational marijuana use is supported by a majority of the state, and its enforcement has racially arbitrary impacts. Additionally, legalizing it saves money, allowing the state to concentrate its resources are more pressing drug-related issues such as the opioid crisis, domestic and sexual abuse associated with alcohol use, and the growing problem of e-cigarettes. Decriminalization should be sold along these lines, suggesting legalization allows for the state to address more pressing problems.

Other impacts

Finally, many will argue that a legalization strategy will help Minnesota in two other ways. First, a “legalize, regulate, and tax” policy will bring in new revenue to the state. Yes this is the case, but one should be wary about projections of such revenue, which are often oversold. Second, the state should not get too dependent on one revenue stream such as this – lotteries point to this. Third, as seen in the case of Colorado, legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana pose administrative complications for the state that need to be addressed. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and one cannot use banks. Marijuana sales are a cash economy for now and good planning is essential to making it work. Finally, along these lines, moving from medical to recreational use of marijuana will have an impact on the former businesses, and one must think about that.

A second claim for legalization is its impact on the Minnesota economy. It may well help in many ways, ranging from agriculture to retail businesses. But again, one needs to think in terms of how these new businesses fit in with existing ones in the state. This gets at what is meant by decriminalization or legalization. Is legalization simply about personal use or does it mean commercial sanction? This is a policy question that’s not clear now.

Finally, despite popular support for decriminalization, will this be an easy bill to pass this next session? Do Democrats and Walz want to define their political agenda as starting with marijuana or do they want to start with the budget, the bonding bill, federal tax conformity, or infrastructure? Legalization is a popular issue with urban liberals, but is it a top priority with suburban female voters who put the DFL in charge? What are the priorities, will the fight over marijuana be contentious, and what message will be sent by making it a priority in 2019? These are all good questions that need to be examined.

Overall, the time to legalize is past due, but how it is done and exactly when, and how it is sold, are the real questions that remain.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” 

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Comments (38)

  1. Submitted by charles thompson on 12/14/2018 - 04:52 pm.

    The Colorado model seems like the best one so far.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/14/2018 - 08:55 pm.

      Not really. That just leads to more crime as the taxes are so high that you keep the old drug dealers in business. It should be legalized and that’s it. Regulating and taxing leads to more crime.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/16/2018 - 04:45 pm.

        “just leads to more crime” And of course you have some statistics to back that statement up? Or is this a Trump type fact, because I said so it is real?

  2. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/14/2018 - 05:00 pm.

    It has proven medical uses therefore must be taken off the Schedule 1 list. States are simply forcing the Feds to do it, finally.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/14/2018 - 06:40 pm.

    This is often sold a as having all benefits and no downside. But most things don’t usually work out that way. The older I get, I see less black and white, and more grey.

    In terms of a state budget of $45B or so, I can’t see the tax revenues as being all that consequential. I would oppose any attempt to dedicate the tax revenue to education, or anything else for that matter. Typically legislators simply allocate less from discretionary funds to what whatever the pet project.

    I’d like to hear more about the results of other states that have already gone down this road. Should the age be 18? Or 21? Should smoking it only be allowed on private property? Should it be allowed in public parks? What about state park campgrounds? Has it lead to an increase in consumption by minors in states that have legalized marijuana? If a kid has pot Gummi Bears in class, would we even know? Do we care?

    Perhaps most importantly, is there a scientific method to measure the impairment of drivers? I’d just as soon see fewer DWIs, so adding to the problem of impaired drivers is not a road I want to go down.

    Arresting and jailing people for marijuana is dumb, and hasn’t worked well. But I’d prefer to proceed slowly and do it right.

    Last, I hope I don’t hear law enforcement lecturing us on the health effects of legalization. They are not trained in science, so they can just stay in their lane.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/14/2018 - 09:10 pm.

      To address some of your questions.
      CO has seen a decrease in teen use… they are below the national average.
      CO hasn’t seen any increase in Pot related car accident deaths. In fact, the State Police say accidents are down. Some outlets claim pot related deaths are up but they’re misleading.. they only test for THC in the system but have no way to know when the person used. They also neglect to tell you that the person almost always had alcohol in their blood.. which means they were drunk when the accident happened, not high.
      If you can sign up the army and go to war at 18, you should be able to use pot or alcohol. If we consider people adults at 18, then they should be treated the same as all adults regardless of age.
      As for public lands, I don’t see any reason why people should be barred from doing it. They aren’t violent and don’t hurt anyone using the stuff.

      From my reading on the subject, pot users are much more capable of driving than drunk drivers. Ideally neither would drive but drunk drivers are worse.

      Also, pot isn’t addictive, alcohol is. Pot makes people relaxed/lazy..alcohol doesn’t.

      And look at all the other uses… there are hundreds, if not thousands, of uses for hemp .. from paper and rope to clothing, food (oil from the seeds), skin care (oil from the seeds), fuel, alternative to plastics, and building materials.

      • Submitted by Lori Hollenkamp on 12/16/2018 - 07:59 am.

        To be precise: hemp is not derived from the same plant as marijuana. And most experts prefer the original name of “cannabis.” In the 50s/60s, the term “marijuana” became common, partly due to the perceived Mexican aspects of its cultivation and use.

        • Submitted by Mark Iezek on 12/17/2018 - 10:08 am.

          To be clear, hemp and marijuana come from the same species of plant, just very different varieties with different properties, just as field corn, sweet corn and popcorn are all different varieties of the same species.

  4. Submitted by Kay Froemming on 12/15/2018 - 07:33 am.

    I am also concerned about a scientific method with which to measure impairment. Alcohol impaired drivers is already a problem and I am concerned about adding marijuana.

    If legalization is going to happen, let’s go slow and get it right.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/16/2018 - 04:49 pm.

      So what does slow mean? Been trying to legalize it since the 60’s, what 50-60 years isn’t slow enough? Lets throw a couple more generations under the criminal “Drug War” bus?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/17/2018 - 10:15 am.

      I’m all for doing things right, but what is the advantage to doing it slowly?

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 12/20/2018 - 08:04 am.

        Maybe “slow” is the wrong word. Just because you do something slowly doesn’t guarantee you’re working smart and towards the right outcome.

        Better words might include such terms as diligent, comprehensive, accurate, tested/verified/substantiated and so on – terms that mean not just that you’re taking longer to do something, but that you’re putting in the productive work to do it right. Doing it that way takes more time, but is so much more than just “going slow”.

  5. Submitted by Curt Carlson on 12/15/2018 - 09:28 am.

    Impairment is a behavioral state. Behavioral tests and measures need to be established to gauge impairment, since chemical tests don’t work reliably. Field sobriety tests are already standard practice for detecting impairment caused by alcohol; there should be similar tests that would detect cannabis-caused impairment.

  6. Submitted by Alan Straka on 12/15/2018 - 12:06 pm.

    I am curious as to how the recent farm bill will affect policing. Growing hemp will now be legal so presumably possession will also be legal. Will the police have to test the THC content of a substance to determine if it is marijuana or hemp? It seems like things could get complicated. One more reason to legalize?

  7. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 12/15/2018 - 05:05 pm.

    “Decriminalize,” yes. Normalize, no. I represent potential civil commitment patients in Mental Health Court in Hennepin County District Court. I have represented way too many potheads there to fall for the line that this is a harmless recreational drug. It’s a major entry point to bipolar disorders and too much of an anesthetic for people who lack determination to pursue life’s goals (and then there was that guy at the Seattle coffee shop who couldn’t be convinced that our service request was urgent – “chill, man”). Will employers be allowed to send people home who appear to be under the influence?

  8. Submitted by charles thompson on 12/15/2018 - 05:23 pm.

    The colorado model seems like the best one so far. There is no more future in smoking pot than in smoking cigarettes. It’s an industry with Constellation Brands and Altria plunking down billions. Might as well get out of the way, turn the scientists loose, see what kind of good we can get from this well tested remedy, let the state make a buck, create a few jobs and greet the gummy bear.

  9. Submitted by Jon Ruff on 12/15/2018 - 05:28 pm.

    I would not have guessed that direction on this topic would come from Mr Barnes, but in fact he seems to be the grown-up in the room.
    Since my introduction to the topic, fifty or so years ago, I’ve found the libertarian approach attractive ; Sell it in the produce department of supermarkets.
    I diverged from that opinion after following “The Colorado Project” since they legalized “recreational” Cannabis.
    The taxes don’t have to be prohibitive ( like they are for the Minnesota medicinal program) but the Colorado approach is providing information on cleanliness, potency, and composition; things for which I am willing to pay.
    Research is already more plentiful than most people realize, or are willing to admit.
    It’s going to be very difficult to develop a forum for a decent presentation of information on this topic after decades of sheer malarkey from the government.,and I thank MNPost for opening the discussion.

  10. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 12/15/2018 - 08:10 pm.

    Aren’t there enough drugs out there with abuse potential? I continue to be amazed at the number of people who claim marijuana is not addictive, is safer than alcohol and has no long term side effects.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/16/2018 - 04:54 pm.

      Well Paul, if it were that addictive suspect there would be a lot more of us baby boomers and then some that would be “Pot addicts” , so how is it we aren’t addicts, i.e. aren’t getting our daily, weekly, monthly or perhaps even yearly dose?

      • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 12/17/2018 - 08:54 am.

        Dennis, speaking for myself I drank my share of alcohol in my earlier days but didn’t end up an alcoholic.Some do and some don’t. Perhaps you need a better understanding of addiction.

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/17/2018 - 10:06 am.

          OK, what don’t I understand?: “User, abuser” “the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity” Too much football watching? Comic book collecting? Would seem from this perspective that, more or less daily required use would have to be on the agenda? Some folks may have a habitat of getting high every day, but addicted? Have never seen solid research that says pot is addictive, unless we want to count “Reefer Madness” as valid research? .

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/17/2018 - 06:11 pm.

      Maybe you haven’t heard, it’s already out there.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 12/18/2018 - 01:45 pm.

      It is vastly safer than alcohol. Factually. For example, you can die from an alcohol overdose from overconsumption within minutes, at the fastest- on the other hand, it is impossible to OD on cannabis. I don’t think anyone is claiming there are no long-term effects… certainly, with regular use, smoking anything over a long period of time is bound to have a cumulative toll on your cardio-pulmonary system, though probably less so than living on a busy street with lots of automotive traffic, for instance. The long-term health effects of alcohol consumption are well documented- beyond that, the links between alcohol consumption and violence is also well-documented: 40% of all violent crimes involve alcohol, 90+% of violent crime on college campuses involves alcohol, etc etc etc.

      It’s an unprocessed (though cultivated and bred) plant that grows out of the earth. It’s not even chemically addictive, though consistent users can develop a use disorder (Dependency) with it. I have one of those use disorders with caffeine, yet no-one complains about a productivity increase.

      I have yet to see the negative consequences in any of the states that have legalized it recreationally, other than the odd wafting smell here or there when you walk down the sidewalks in Boulder or Seattle.

      Maybe I’m just incensed that you said it was less safe than alcohol, as there is a literal mountain of evidence to the contrary.

  11. Submitted by Tom Knisely on 12/17/2018 - 09:09 am.

    This will be a disaster for our schools. I know many pro pot people say that it will be regulated and not intended for kids.

    Sure, like alcohol. Every year we bury kids who are killed in alcohol related crashes, many more suffer life changing injuries, not to mention the many negative effects alcohol has on student performance.

    Sure like vaping. Vaping is “only for adults” but the surgeon general says vaping is an epidemic and in just one year the amount of teens vaping has doubled.

    I’ve worked with kids for years. Pot steals their motivation, and impacts their performance in school. A-,B+ kids turn into C-,D+ kids. I see it every year. The fact that you smoked a ton of dope and graduated college, doesn’t mean that it has no impact on others.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 12/18/2018 - 02:07 pm.

      Could be worse. Instead of just impacting their grades cannabis use currently has a chance of turning those kids into prisoners. That seems way more damaging to their long-term future than some bad grades in high school.

  12. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/17/2018 - 09:41 am.

    Two small additions to the dialogue:

    First, in paragraph #5, I believe Mr. Schultz is incorrect – if the words are typed correctly – in saying, “… Criminalizing recreational marijuana use is supported by a majority of the state, and its enforcement has racially arbitrary impacts.” What’s intended there – I think – is “DEcriminalization” is supported by a majority of the state.

    Second, to my continued surprise and disappointment, the powers-that-be in both politics and law enforcement appear to have learned nothing from Constitutional Amendment 18’s history of total and abject failure.

    I can see downsides to pot’s recreational use – speaking as a life-long teetotaler – but prohibition, as far as I can tell, has never worked. Whether pot’s legalization would become a revenue stream upon which the state would come to depend is one of the many things over which I doubt I’ll end up having any control, but I hope the issue doesn’t become a fight over the financial implications.

    Mostly, again speaking as a teetotaler, with no desire to try it or use it, I’d like to see the entire law enforcement structure at every level, from the federal down to the smallest incorporated village, including states and counties, stop arresting and imprisoning people for use and possession. Having observed this issue for about half a century, it seems clear to me, at least, that drug use, including marijuana, but also including opioids and other substances (including alcohol), is, and should be, a public health issue, not a criminal one.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/17/2018 - 10:10 am.

      Ray, we pretty much agree, and I am not the teetotaler variety. Just seems that we have a drug war that wasted billions, perhaps trillions of tax dollars and destroyed millions of lives and has accomplished nothing beneficial, a great political gimmick, to suppress folks of color. , . .

    • Submitted by David Schultz on 12/17/2018 - 10:52 am.

      Ray correctly noted a typo and it should be a majority support decriminalization. I also wish to underscore I am a PhD and not a MD. I leave it to them to assess any health impacts associated with marijuana use and should not have implied there are no public health issues here. I support legalization because, in part, it can better address any health issues compared to criminalizing its use.

  13. Submitted by charles thompson on 12/17/2018 - 05:35 pm.

    Legalization will not change the facts on the ground for the most part unless Minnesota builds a border wall. But judging from the news from Canada the – what about the children meme- is a non starter. Where is the cachet when you can buy it at the corner store? Who wants to share a bong with your grandma? Or will this be the new face of the family values party…

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/18/2018 - 09:42 am.

      So when I saw Grand Pa buy a case of Schmidt and drink one, that made me not want to drink one? Seriously?

      No, it doesn’t work that way. And drawing lessons from Canada is foolish, given how recently they legalized “the demon weed”.

  14. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/18/2018 - 06:19 pm.

    So while we continue to put the screws to smoking tobacco with taxes, banishment from public places, secondhand smoke warnings, lung disease, etc., we are going to promote smoking another hot gas into our lungs? And, if you ever happened to know a really heavy pot user, would you ever call them “the best and the brightest”, energized, or dynamic?

  15. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/20/2018 - 09:41 am.

    A point often overlooked: Marijuana grows out of the ground, its not manufactured, So if smoking pine needles got you high would we need to make them a controlled substance as well, cut down all the pine trees? Just curios how one supports the notion, that things that grow out of the ground are “illegal” but stuff man-made is legal?

  16. Submitted by charles thompson on 12/20/2018 - 05:50 pm.

    This is an interesting discussion. Barnes’ crime claim early, the school children fears, the stoner stereotyping, No wonder we are called flyover country. Wait until LSD is rescheduled. There is major clinical work going on. Microdosing is a thing in California, and not among the homeless.

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