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Why the Minnesota DFL is pushing marijuana legalization

Photo by Roberto Valdivia on Unsplash

The Minnesota DFL is making legalization of marijuana a 2020 election issue. Gov. Tim Walz has instructed his agencies to prepare for it, and Democrats are kicking off a statewide listening tour to tout legalization’s benefits. Does such a strategy make political sense or are the Democrats high?

From a public policy perspective, the current criminalization “war on drugs” has failed. I argued that in a Texas Tech Law Review article 26 years ago, well before it was fashionable to advocate for legalization. The current criminalization approach has failed to stop drug usage, imposed racially arbitrary sentences, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars in government enforcement and lost personal freedom and productivity due to incarceration.

Maybe for some, usage of marijuana is a matter of personal freedom to use a harmless drug. However, as we have seen with the opioid crisis and some research on prolonged use of marijuana, use of any drugs ought also to be viewed as a public health issue with the question being: What is the best way to regulate a specific drug to address its real or potential health issues? Criminalization has failed with marijuana, and legalization of some sort is the answer. From a public-policy perspective, the question is what type of legalization.

The DFL sees the time as now

But policy change requires political opportunity. The DFL sees the time as now to advocate for it, despite the fact that the Republican state Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has said legalization will not happen next year. So if legalization is dead next year, why push it?

There are several reasons. The first is polling data that suggest 64% of those surveyed by Gallup favor legalization, including in Midwest states such as Minnesota. However, what legalization means varies by person. A Mason-Dixon poll found recreational legalization support only at 37%. Neither poll indicated that recreational legalization was a top issue for many voters. Thus, while it appears that there is majority support for legalization, it is less clear that recreational use is a top political or policy priority for a large percentage of the voters.

Minnesota DFLers may be hoping that supporting marijuana legalization is the 2020 equivalent of the 2012 marriage amendment. In that year the Republicans placed on the ballot a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. The theory was that support for the amendment would be so strong that it would help the GOP maintain control of the state Legislature and win Minnesota for presidential candidate Mitt Romney by energizing the party base. It backfired. Instead, it energized the DFL, especially young voters, and it resulted in flipping the Legislature to Democrats, who in 2013 legalized same-sex marriages in the state.

The 2018 numbers

More specifically, though, Democrats may be reading numbers from the 2018 election. That year two pro-legalization parties in Minnesota qualified for major party status. In the race for state auditor, the Legalize Marijuana Now Party received 133,913 votes, whereas in the race for attorney general, Grassroots Legalize Cannabis received 145,748, or 5.28% and 5.71% of the statewide vote for those offices respectively. In running for office, the two pro-legalization parties opted not to run against each other to prevent splitting of votes. This is important because one can argue that those who voted for one of the pro-legalization parties are those who view the issue as their top priority. This means not that 10% of the voters supported pro-legalization parties, but something around 5-6% of those casting votes in either the state auditor or attorney general races.

photo of article author
David Schultz
The Minnesota secretary of state indicated that 2,611, 365 individuals cast ballots in 2018. Assume that the 145,748 Grassroots Legalize Cannabis vote is a fair estimate of those who support legalization as a primary or top issue. This works out to 5.58% who voted for a pro-legalization party. In the counties of Hennepin, Ramsey, and St. Louis, 31,976, 14,720, and 5,471 respectively voted for a pro-legalization party or candidate. In total, these three counties constituted 62,167 or 42.7% of the pro-legalization vote in the state. The other 56.3% was clumped in urban areas or college-town areas, with thin support in more rural areas. Even in suburbs, support was less. For the attorney general’s race, in Edina and Eden Prairie — two typical and more affluent suburbs that might be likely to support legalization — 2,462 out of 62,523 voters or 3.94% of the voters went for the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party.

Geographical support is clumped

What do all these statistics suggest? Perhaps they underestimate support for recreational legalization as a top priority. But they do indicate a small percentage of the population cares about the issue and the DFL feels it cannot ignore it. Failure to support legalization may mean more voters drift away from the party, making it harder to pick up a Senate majority or mobilize voters for statewide races. Yet the geographic distribution of support for legalization is clumped, strongest in areas where the DFL are already strong. Moreover, if the race for control of the state, especially the Legislature, goes through the suburbs, especially with suburban women, it is not clear that a strong legalization approach makes sense. In talks I have given, when legalization is raised, many suburban women exclaim, “Another thing I have to protect my children from.”

Perhaps marijuana legalization will do the same in 2020, mobilizing young voters to come out and vote. Or perhaps it will alienate suburban (female) voters, or lead to a countermobilization by the GOP, which is already motivated to come out to support Donald Trump. This is the gamble the DFL is taking going into the 2020 elections in its advocacy for recreational marijuana.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” 


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/04/2019 - 09:41 am.

    You know Dave, seems there is one big positive financial impact to legalization as well. Example, incarceration in Minnesota prisons is ~ $31K per inmate, suspect that $ could be better spent somewhere else, (lower taxes/but that won’t excite R’s) we can then also add in the cost of policing, and running folks through the court system, not to mention the social implications of saving families, communities etc. from being busted up and threatened with police (drug war) enforcement. The drug war strategy has always been a bad idea, rings of religious intolerance, In exchange we get an income stream from the sales tax and a boost to retail and production employment.

  2. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 09/05/2019 - 10:31 am.

    If suburban women don’t see marijuana use as a “threat” to their children already… well, what are they smoking? Currently their children are quite likely to use a product with unverified ingredients, purchased on the blackmarket from people who may or may not have benign intentions. Those sweet innocent suburban children would be safer if it were possible to study the effects of THC and regulate its cultivation and sale.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/05/2019 - 11:19 am.


      When I hear people say that legalization will make it easier for teens to get it, my thought is how can it get any easier than it is now. Seriously, does anyone actually think a teenager looking for some weed can’t get some in a matter of hours?

      If kids end up with the legal weed, that will be safer than whatever they are getting now.

  3. Submitted by John Evans on 09/05/2019 - 12:44 pm.

    David Schultz and Peter Callaghan have written pretty sensible discussions of the politics of legalization. Both Schultz and the DFL proponents of legalization begin with the assumption that drug regulation should be a public health issue, rather than a political one.

    Any discussion of the politics of legalization should begin with a reminder that the War On Drugs that Nixon began over 50 years ago was always a political strategem, and never a public health program.

    John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s Assistant for Domestic Affairs, was the main architect of the policy:

    “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

    The quote and the source are right there on Wikipedia.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/05/2019 - 06:37 pm.

      I recall the Geo. Bush “this crack was purchased across the street from the White House” national address. I told a buddy that i just didn’t get it. Whatever Bush was proposing would likely make nothing more than a small dent in drug use. My much more savvy friend told me that there was no intention to reduce drug use. It was all for show, and most Americans would get behind the effort.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 09/06/2019 - 09:23 pm.

      I guess what I’m saying is that I’m pleased that people are talking about legalization, but the articles I’m reading here seem to assume that our current drug policy is just some misguided public health policy that might have been enacted in good faith. It wasn’t, and it isn’t right to avoid a frank discussion of the really nasty political motives behind our current drug policy.

      The science tells us that those suburban moms should be more afraid of alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals than of marijuana. But they should also be afraid of public officials who can make their kids felons just for drug crimes.

      About 20 million Americans have a felony conviction. Nearly one in four African-American adults is now a felon. Felons are consigned for life to a permanent underclass. And of course, they cannot vote.

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