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Marijuana advocates in Minnesota campaigning against legalization parties, infiltrators, in key swing districts

Winning major party status had unintended results. As a minor party, organizers have control over who runs under their party name by gathering signatures on a nominating petition. Major parties do not. In 2020, anyone with a filing fee could run under one of the two legalization parties.

Minnesota Legal Marijuana Now Party members rallying at the Minnesota State Capitol on April 20, 2016.
Minnesota Legal Marijuana Now Party members rallying at the Minnesota State Capitol on April 20, 2016.
Wikimedia Commons/Dan Vacek

It’s been the fundamental political dilemma for those who want Minnesota to join the 19 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana for recreational uses: do they run their own candidates under their own banner or support DFLers who pledge to push legalization.

Michael Ford
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Michael Ford
One of the leaders of the separate party approach has now changed his strategy. Michael Ford, who as chair of the Legal Marijuana Now (LMN) Party helped it gain major party status in 2018, is now a cofounder of a coalition to help DFLers in battleground races. Specifically, the MN Is Ready political action committee will target races where marijuana party candidates have the potential of siphoning votes from DFLers and help Republicans win.

Ford was chair of one of the two legalization parties from 2015 to 2019. By winning just more than 5 percent of the vote for state auditor in 2018, he won major party rights for LMN. At the same election, Noah Johnson won 5.7 percent of the vote for attorney general and earned major party status for the aligned Grassroots – Legalize Cannabis Party (GLC).

Ford says that wasn’t the plan. Instead, the marijuana activists wanted to show the other parties that there was support for the issue and it wasn’t a political handicap.

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“I organized a campaign to get candidates on the ballot for that election just so we could maintain minor party status,” Ford said. “We didn’t expect to get major party status. That was a shock. The idea was to get enough votes so legislators would see the issue, take it seriously and not be afraid to take a solid stance.”

Winning major party status had unintended results. As a minor party, organizers have control over who runs under their party name by gathering signatures on a nominating petition. Major parties do not. In 2020, anyone with a filing fee could run under one of the two legalization parties. Some did so because they believed in the issue. But some with closer ties to the GOP than either the LMN or the GLC parties ran as well, and the effect was to make close races even closer.

DFL House leadership worked to try to convince pro-legalization voters that their candidates were the best way to get achieve legalization. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, led a statewide tour to take testimony and then pushed House File 600 through the House. It did not advance in the Senate.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler
Minnesota House DFL
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, at podium, used the Minnesota State Fair as a backdrop for an announcement that DFL lawmakers would tour the state to get feedback that would inform a legalization bill they would be introducing in 2020.

Former state Rep. Brad Tabke
Ford is no longer active with Legal Marijuana Now, saying he was concerned that the party not only didn’t call out some of the questionable candidates in 2020, but even endorsed several “fake” candidates after they filed. As executive director of the Minnesota affiliate of the national marijuana legalization organization NORML, a MN Is Ready founder, he has been working with other advocates and DFLers in the state Legislature on expansion of access. He was among those promoting the mostly under-the-radar effort to allow the sale of hemp-based THC edibles.

“This year we’re hoping to educate voters that voting for Legal Marijuana Now or Grassroots candidates isn’t going to get us closer to legalization. It can actually hurt us,” Ford said. “The only way we’re going to get there is either by the Republicans magically saying, ‘hey we changed our minds,’ or by electing legislators who have already taken stands.”

While LMN does have a slate of candidates, the Grassroots party is less active. One of its founders, Oliver Steinberg, is also focused on identifying spoiler candidates using the party name.

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Steinberg said in May that the parties were caught off guard in 2020 but won’t be this election.

“We know what we’re facing, and potentially if they attempt again to encourage people fraudulently to pretend to be who they are not, I will proceed under the laws that we have by filing a complaint under fair campaign practices laws,” Steinberg said.

Spoiler alert

Leili Fatehi has been working on marijuana legalization for several years as a political consultant and lobbyist. She is a partner in Blunt Strategies (pun very much intended) and was a strategist behind the House DFL legalization bill in 2021. She also co-founded Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation.

Leili Fatehi
Leili Fatehi
Fatehi said she will lead a separately organized independent expenditure campaign to spend money in targeted districts where a legalization candidate could be the difference between a DFL victory and a DFL defeat. Fatehi said it will be a challenge to reach the type of voter who makes legalization their top issue. They are, by nature, not as engaged in politics as other single-issue candidates might be.

“That’s why it is important to do this in collaboration with leaders from that third-party movement, leaders who are recognizable to single-issue cannabis voters,” she said. The recent legalization of THC-infused edibles has provided some momentum.

“This election cycle is very exciting,” Fatehi said. “It feels like the community has really coalesced together that hasn’t existed before.”

A separate effort will be led by Maren Schroeder, the policy director for medical and recreational legalization advocates Sensible Change MN. That is the voter outreach and voter registration campaign that cannot endorse or advocate for specific candidates. Using data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Schroeder estimates how many of the 735,000 Minnesotans who say they use marijuana are in each legislative district.

Schroeder said the challenge is to convince voters who would be attracted to candidates with a legal marijuana party below their names. The coalition is offering a seal of approval for candidates who pledge to work for legalization that can be included on campaign materials and mailers.

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Schroeder said the voter education part of the new coalition will try to raise money from advocates of legalization as well as those who might profit from a new market, now including retailers and producers of hemp-derived THC edibles. That could be another challenge, however.

“There’s been a lot of work on the advocacy side at little to no pay while private industry is making a boatload of money,” she said. So far, little of that has flowed into politics or issue advocacy.

Corey Day
Corey Day
Corey Day is a public affairs consultant and former executive director of the Minnesota DFL. He is not involved with the MN Is Ready group, but three years ago he created Cannabis for Economic Growth in hopes of tapping into industry funding to promote legalization. Day was especially interested in promoting racial and social equity in any legalization plan, that is assuring that people and communities of color that have suffered most under criminal laws governing marijuana would share economic benefits of a legal system.

But Day said it was difficult to raise support from the industry – both in-state and out-of-state. The way the new coalition is positioned, however, it might not need to tap those sources of cash.

“It’ll be far easier to raise money when you’re targeting competitive Democratic seats with the blessing of the DFL caucuses and the DFL party,” Day said. “When you look at their disclosure reports, you’re going to see the same donors that give to the House caucus, the Senate caucus. You’re not going to see business interests from out of state all of a sudden wanting to play in this market.”