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Will the Minnesota Legislature take up recreational marijuana in 2020?

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.

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.

“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. 

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.

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.”

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/15/2020 - 11:29 am.

    There is no good reason to oppose this. Legalization doesn’t mean more use. It means the use will be safer, regulated and taxed. It means we won’t be wasting law enforcement resources locking people (and disproportionately people of color) up for using and selling something that’s legal in nearly half the country. It means that people who use it medicinally won’t have to go through ridiculous bureaucracy to get their medicine.

    Opposing legalization is cruel and dumb.

  2. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 01/15/2020 - 11:29 am.

    2/3 are in favor of legalization but Republicans won’t allow it. The local version of MAGA.

  3. Submitted by Vonnie Phillips on 01/15/2020 - 11:44 am.

    Actually, the Minnesota Legislature can do what it wants on this issue, who cares and it doesn’t matter. If the Minnesota Legislature prefers to have its tax dollars to Michigan, Illinois, and Canada, so be it.

    There is absolutely no justification to prohibit recreational use in this state, especially if cigarettes and alcohol is consumed legally, which these substances, any physician will tell you, marijuana is no where near as harmful. Also, this is an restorative justice issue, wonder how many marijuana arrests occur in Edina, Wayzata, Orono, never hear about these hotdog cops looking for it in these neighborhoods, for fear of pissing off the wrong folks over someone’s kid.

  4. Submitted by Vonnie Phillips on 01/15/2020 - 11:48 am.

    You be surprised how many people have their marijuana mailed to them from legal states, like me. These dispensaries in legal states, the way the product is prepared and packaged, you would think you visited a Hallmark gift shop, and its great.

    Do want Minnesota, who cares.

  5. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 01/15/2020 - 01:09 pm.

    South Dakota is next? We’re gonna need a big beautiful wall to keep out the smoke drifting in from both the east and the west. I suggest we raise taxes to pay for it. Go Gazelka!

  6. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 01/15/2020 - 01:45 pm.

    It had better. My very conservative rep was ready to vote for it the last time. This really should be a referendum on the next ballot.

  7. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/15/2020 - 01:49 pm.

    Cannabis prohibition has always been about the authoritarian impluse: domination and oppression.

    Gazelka and most of the GOP care about freedom like they care about the health of ecosystems. Freedom extends to business, to pollute and exterminate pollinators. Freedom for the people to choose to consume cannabis? Never! But, freedom for law enforcement to seize the assets of and disenfranchise those who do? Like I said, authoritarianism, domination and oppression.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/15/2020 - 01:59 pm.

    Well, nothing new, the guys that say hey you need a gun to protect yourself from folks in case they look at you a little crooked, are the same folks that say despite centuries of evidence, taking a puff or a chew of a natural substance, (grows out of the ground) is way over the top and folks need to be protected from themselves. But hey, no protection needed from Billion $ mining concerns up on the range, let them folks go for it despite the potential for 200 years worth of pollution! Can’t make this stuff up.

  9. Submitted by lisa miller on 01/15/2020 - 02:06 pm.

    Jensen’s bill makes sense. Marijuana for medicinal purposes makes sense. Decriminalization makes sense. There are racial disparities in sentencing at least there have been in the past in regards to marijuana. However in other states that have legalized it, there remains a black market with drug gangs as well as cartels who use national forests to plant weed and use banned pesticides on their crops(which is an area the drug campaign should be focusing on). It’s not the easy tax grab as some make it out to be, not to mention it does have adverse affects on teens.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/15/2020 - 08:44 pm.

      The adverse effects on teens – to the extent that actually exists – is going to be there regardless of legalization. If anything, legal weed is going to be safer than what they are using now. The fact its illegal isn’t deterring any teens.

      And sure there is still a black market, and the problems associated with that. But the more states that make it available and the more legal weed is normalized, the less of an incentive there will be for black market sales. You just have to look at alcohol prohibition to understand how this works.

    • Submitted by Ronald Beaulieu on 01/16/2020 - 04:55 am.

      First of all our teens for the most part will be safe ok,! O and the big bad drug cartels do not care about marijuana as much as you and all the republicans is what it truly boils down to fear of losing money in the big drug corporations the pharmaceutical company’s are behind the opposition of legal marijuana face it marijuana will be fully legal one day what is minnesota waiting for its money this state needs.yeah as soon as it becomes legal the cartels are going to come to minnesota with their pesticides and pollute the land. It is already polluted in every aspect of agricultural development people that do not like pot never will what they dont understand always will terrify them how dare we want marijuana legal come on folks let’s just get weed legal the gains outweigh any risk the republicans keep coming up with the republicans are rich they do not want weed legal because they need control full on control let’s show them it’s not a bad thing it’s just a plant my goodness, alcohol kills more annually than most narcotics and I can walk 2 blocks to get alcohol everyday of the week.

  10. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 01/15/2020 - 02:10 pm.

    Between alcohol and prescription opioids does society really need another legal drug with abuse potential? I am amazed at how the advocates of marijuana legalization continue to delude themselves (and try to delude others) into thinking that chronic use of marijuana does not have the same issues as those associated with alcohol.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/15/2020 - 07:57 pm.

      Not to get out of kilter, but suspect there were more folks killed in Minnesota last year driving bicycles than from a marijuana overdose, Next step make bicycling illegal? Folks do ride bicycles for recreational purposes. Gets crazy down that rabbit hole.

      • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 01/16/2020 - 08:57 am.

        The comparison between the two is completely invalid. And what is the source of your information on marijuana overdoses?

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/16/2020 - 09:34 am.

          Well you are kind of getting the point, it is difficult to find anything where some one died specifically of excessive pot smoking or eating has an over dose, which drives right at your “abuse” claim, which folks could say is unsupported, more or less conjecture. Each year in Minnesota, approximately 39 pedestrians and 7 bicyclists are killed as a result of collisions with motor vehicles.Quit walking?

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/16/2020 - 10:54 am.

          Because no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose. The number is zero.

          There is so much ignorance about this in the medical community. Doctors killed (and continue to kill) thousands of people by prescribing opioids, but can’t even understand basic facts about this much safer alternative.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/15/2020 - 08:35 pm.

      Opioids are actually one of the biggest reasons for legalization of marijuana. A lot of people can replace opioids – which can kill you – with marijuana – which can’t.

    • Submitted by kurt nelson on 01/18/2020 - 10:04 am.

      As Pat pointed out there Paul, there has not been a single case in the history of the world of a person perishing from an overdose of weed. Not one. Maybe find another talking point, one that’s based in reality.

      That’s quite a leap equating alcohol and opioids – but you reject another analogy out of hand because it falls outside of your ideology. Cool.

    • Submitted by john munoz on 02/23/2020 - 09:04 pm.

      I think it’s a matter of the people (adults) choice whether to use it as they choose to consume alcohol and cigarettes. It’s all by choice and it seems Minnesota Lawmakers are using this as a divisive issue when it can benefit thousands in Minnesota.
      We know for fact that alcohol and tobacco are far worse in the addictive field, right? And they have no real positive properties to benefit people, right? So what’s the difference? Other than the fear mongers that herd the sheep to be against it. We are a country built on freedom for the people. So far it’s been more about those we vote into power to play out their careers in politics. Why can’t we choose for ourselves on this issue? Because they are scared of giving back that power.
      The train of thought we have been fed is to believe marijuana is a gateway drug but realistically it’s the easiest drug to find so it’s easier to consume at a young age. I smoked marijuana before as a teen and young adult but haven’t for over 20 years. All by choice. I have nothing against people wanting to choose for themselves. The statistics show us there’s more dangerous substances to be worried about than this. Look at the black market thc carts causing havoc because it’s very existence depends on it being illegal and not tested for human consumption. Not to mention the loss of revenue that could be used to benefit Minnesotans. Other legal states are taking in millions from us. It’s not about the money, but the overall benefits for all involved directly and indirectly.

  11. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/15/2020 - 04:49 pm.

    There’s no rush. Work it out over the coming year and set aside some time for hearings and debates in ’21. The details require more attention than they are likely to get in a short session during an election year.

  12. Submitted by Bernie Hesse on 01/16/2020 - 11:50 am.

    Let us start by not using recreational and instead talk about adult use. People use cannabis for a number of reasons. It is a plant and has over 400 different agents that can be extracted for various medical conditions (probably more but stay tuned on that).
    What the state of MN should be doing is engaging testing operations and labs- so we can also have a safe supply. The jobs created by the industry should have good labor standards and training programs with an apprenticeship program. And let us not be deluded into thinking that tax revenue will be the magic fountain of funding every program in the state. We have an opportunity to do it right and smart. Let us not screw this up.

  13. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/16/2020 - 04:25 pm.

    Who is funding opposition to marijuana legalization?

    Opioid manufacturers. Alcohol distributors. Private prison companies. Casino owners.

  14. Submitted by eric schmid on 01/16/2020 - 05:25 pm.

    The legalization of marijuana in MN is political kabuki theater. Walz has no intention in legalizing rec use. He is for it because the low IQ Gazelka is against it. If the Grand Old Moron Party ever decided that they were for rec use, Walz and his DFL’ers would suddenly be against. Both the Dems and Repubs in this state love to interfere in people’s lives way too much to ever legalize rec marijuana. As stated by someone before, the number of states with legal dispensaries is increasing each day. Pretty soon MN and WISC (another state capitol full of dolts) will be the only 2 places in North America where rec usage is illegal.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/17/2020 - 09:50 am.

      Do you have any evidence whatsoever to support your claim that Walz and the Democrats don’t really support recreational use? Illinois – which is controlled by Democrats – legalized recreational use through legislation.

      I agree it will be a long time for Wisconsin, but if the Democrats take back the Senate it will pass here. I expect the votes are there now with some Republican support, but it won’t get past Gazelka.

      • Submitted by Ronald Beaulieu on 01/18/2020 - 02:36 am.

        So you oppose legalization because gazelka and. The other repubs do (for say) then all the pot heads better get up and just vote Democrats that are for it.are you for legalization? Of a plant with medicinal properties I mean it stops seizures it’s a. Miracle plant why republicans are against it is just…. well stupid! do they really care about a risk? Or do they lose out on something or is it ethics and religion. O there’s also what I mentioned pharmaceutical co ‘s. Its money, republicans never will let it go fully legal this state is the only state with like what 7 seats for just this kind of dilemma Republicans can pay for a seat I’d bet my last buck on it so I’m not hating on repubs but geeze let some other kind of thinking take course here we need to know why all the Republican weed haters are sooo against an idea that is not bad for the environment or society and our children they stand behind those things…..but maybe it is something that hurts their overstuffed wallets so no they are not going. To go full on legal with marijuana It is sad. So we need to vote them out like out only then will it be the best day ever for me and so many others it needs to happen everyone that opposes it can go get drunk me I am ready for weed to be legal we can change the seats vote only those who support full legalization of marijuana nothing bad will come of it

  15. Submitted by Jeff Alerex on 01/18/2020 - 04:06 pm.

    Wouldn’t it be funny if the GOP lost their Senate majority because of this? We could have a pot smoking party in front of Gazelka’s house.

  16. Submitted by Riley Schumacher on 01/20/2020 - 05:58 am.

    Senator Jensen is incorrect 1.5 oz is 42.5 grams as the law Minnesota Statute 152.01 Subd.16 says 42.5 grams not 32 grams.

  17. Submitted by Glenn Melcher on 01/21/2020 - 01:53 pm.

    If for no other reason we are now losing tax revenue. Colorado is one such example & Illinois just started collecting revenue on January 1st 2020.. Can You say “new money”..

    It’s a forgone conclusion that this will happen. We tax it now or tax it later..

    Glenn Melcher

  18. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/21/2020 - 06:45 pm.

    Oh look, our medical pot program is a cluster. What a shock! Let’s add recreational pot when the State can’t even manage the medical version.

    Pay no attention to the Legislative Auditor, nothing to see here.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/22/2020 - 11:15 am.

      Recreational pot would actually fix everything that is wrong with the medical program. Instead of all the bureaucracy, everyone could just buy it.

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