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Will the Minnesota Legislature take up recreational marijuana in 2020?

“We have to assess what the best strategy is for building support for ultimate passage rather than try to rush something through before it is ready,” says DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler. “Or creating a lot of opposition unnecessarily.” 

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler
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.
Minnesota House DFL

After announcing at the Minnesota State Fair that DFL lawmakers would launch a series of conversations on cannabis, the Democratic leaders of the Minnesota House appear to be ending up pretty much where they expected to be a month before the start of the 2020 session of the state Legislature.

DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said that legislation is being drafted to add Minnesota to the list of states that have legalized, taxed and regulated the recreational use of marijuana. Yet Winkler, from Golden Valley, stopped short of predicting that a legalization bill would come to a vote on the House floor.

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“We have not crossed that bridge yet, not made that decision,” Winkler said. “We have to assess what the best strategy is for building support for ultimate passage rather than try to rush something through before it is ready, or creating a lot of opposition unnecessarily.”

While Gov. Tim Walz has said he supports legalization of marijuana for recreational use, the prospects for a pot bill making it through the state Senate are questionable, with Republican leadership Monday reiterated their opposition to full legalization. The 2020 session begins Feb. 11.

GOP: ‘Nothing good’ about recreational marijuana

Winkler said he heard two general themes from those who attend the town halls he held around the state: that people want marijuana legalized — and that it’s expensive and difficult to take advantage of the state’s existing medical marijuana program. 

“It adds up to this change that is happening in the culture where people feel that cannabis is comparatively safe and provides benefits,” he said. “It is not frightening as it has been portrayed in the past.” 

The most-recent national poll show that two-thirds of Americans favor legalization.

“People have just sort of moved on, that people should be able to do this if they want to and the current criminal justice approach is creating worse consequences than legalization would,” Winkler said. 

Minnesota would be the 12th state to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use and would one of just a few that did so via the Legislature rather than citizen initiative. South Dakota will have a legalization initiative on the ballot in November. Minnesota is one of 33 states with some form of medical marijuana access.

Suggestions that the state first modernize its medical marijuana system, perhaps by allowing the sale of marijuana buds or flower that could be smoked (and is cheaper to produce than oils and edibles), isn’t the answer, Winkler said. “Just fixing the medical program doesn’t address all of the concerns that people have,” he said. Legalization is the best way to reduce costs for medical users and for recreational users as well.”

Winkler acknowledged that changes in the medical program might be more acceptable to Senate Republicans. “But their strong opposition to this issue makes me skeptical that they would want to do that, or if they did that it would be meaningful change,” Winkler said. “You can’t smoke cannabis in our medical program, and I just can’t imagine them (the Senate GOP) wanting to make that possible right now.”

During an announcement of the Senate GOP’s general agenda for the 2020 session, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka was asked about legalization. “We’re not going to do recreational marijuana,” the Nisswa-area Republican said. 

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The Senate held a hearing on a legalization bill last session, and a majority of the committee voted against advancing a bill. DFLers accused the committee’s GOP chair of stacking the witnesses to build a case against legalization. Republicans said the witnesses brought real-world experience from states that have legalized marijuana.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
“All of the data was bad,” said Gazelka, citing testimony arguing that accident rates, mental health case and homelessnesses were all made worse in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. 

“There was nothing good that would come out of it,” Gazelka said. 

The caucus is open to considering additional medical uses as long as they don’t create a path that makes it easier to enact recreational marijana, he said, and Senate Republicans also are open to looking at reducing criminal sentences for possession.

“That’s where we try to draw the boundary,” Gazelka said. “We say recreational marijuana: No. I don’t ever want to say that it’s good for Minnesota, because I don’t think that it is.” 

Election considerations 

So why bother if anything taken up by the DFL House is sure to be squashed in the GOP Senate? 

Winkler said the political and social trends are moving toward legalization, and Minnesota will be there eventually. But he also has said that it is a political issue for many voters, and the DFL will share the ballot this summer and fall with two new marijuana legalization parties. In a close race, a pro-legalization party candidate could siphon enough votes from the DFL candidate to transform a win to a loss.

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So is he trying to send a message to pro-legalization voters that they are best off supporting DFL candidates? 

Winkler said that he doesn’t believe in sending messages via legislation. But if the party takes control of both houses of the Legislature in 2021, the quicker path to legalization would be to vote for a DFLer rather than risk turning that seat over to a Republican. At least that’s one iteration of the politics.

“I’m trying to put together a bill and an approach to legalization that unites the DFL and highlights the issue so that those who are skeptical that the DFL is willing to take this on and champion it see that we are serious about it,” Winkler said.

Winkler said a bill is being drafted, and because of the complexities of the issue it will have to go to multiple committees that sync up with working groups that have been meeting over the interim, including public health, criminal justice reform, racial equity, economic development and regulation and taxation.

State Sen. Scott Jensen
State Sen. Scott Jensen
The criminal justice aspects stem from an analysis that shows people of color are far more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana related crimes. There have also been analyses that show a regulated and taxed market could produce around $300 million in revenue for the state.

One of the few Senate Republicans who has expressed some support for changing marijuana laws in Chaska Sen. Scott Jensen. He cosponsored a legalization bill in 2019 but said he did so to begin the conversation about the issue, not to legalize it yet.

“I think there’s absolutely no chance for full legalization of recreational marijuana to take place,” he said of the chances in the Senate for any bill approved by the House. “But I do think there could be some progress made in terms of decriminalization of trivial amounts as well as expunging records.”

Jensen said last week that he will have a bill to make two changes: One, to reschedule cannabis from a schedule 0ne drug to a schedule two drug. That would allow research on the medical aspects and acknowledge the state’s existing medical marijuana program.

“That makes sense since we already have a medical marijuana program, which identifies and testifies to the fact that indeed THC does have medicinal use,” said Jensen, a medical doctor. “That’s just stating the obvious and taking away an inconsistency in our statutes.”

His bill would also change how long a criminal record for minor possession of marijuana would be handled by the state.

“Right now the law says if you have a trivial amount of marijuana — one and a half ounces or less, which is 32 grams — it goes on your record and it stays on your record for awhile,” Jensen said. 

He wants to see that those found guilty of such possession would have their records cleared after one year if they do not commit similar offenses. 

Jensen, who has announced that he will not seek a second term in the Senate in 2020, said he doesn’t think he will have trouble attracting Senate cosponsors of his bill. He just isn’t sure any of those cosponsors will be fellow Republicans.

Jensen said he will oppose any attempts by the Senate to act as the judge of which conditions are eligible for the medical program. That refers to complaints that the Department of Health is preparing to add macular degeneration to the list.

He also said he thinks marijuana flower should be sold as a way of bringing down the cost for medical marijuana users.

And he said he agrees with Winkler that legalization could be a potent political issue —  and that his party should be aware of the impacts.

“We would be well advised, even if it’s a struggle, to be a little bit more open minded,” he said. “The two new parties that are cannabis related — that’s easy picking for the DFL — I don’t think their vote will be determined solely on the issue of legalization of recreational marijuana. They want thoughtful discussion. They’d like to see some movement. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”