Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Spoiler alert: meet the guy who could decide the Minnesota attorney general’s race

Grassroots-Legal Marijuana Now candidate Noah Johnson isn’t likely to win his bid to become Minnesota attorney general. But in a race where the DFL and GOP candidates are tied, he could play a big role in determining the outcome. 

Noah Johnson
Noah Johnson: “The DFL, I find a little conservative.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Some candidates run for office because they want to be elected. Okay, most candidates run for office because they want to be elected.

But every now and then comes a candidate who would rather win the issue than win the office. Noah Johnson, for example, said last week he might consider encouraging a vote for one of his rivals for Minnesota Attorney General. All they have to do is agree with his position on the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

Johnson is the attorney general candidate of the Grassroots-Legal Marijuana Now party. The party has candidates for Minnesota governor (Chris Wright), lieutenant governor (Judith Schwartzbacker) and state auditor (Michael Ford). But it is in the attorney general race where the party has a chance to impact the result.

Johnson isn’t likely to win, of course. But he did collect enough support in a recent Star Tribune/MPR poll — 5 percent — to be invited to take part in a forum on Twin Cities PBS’ Almanac show. And in a race where the DFL and GOP candidates are tied, 5 percent is a lot.

Article continues after advertisement

‘The DFL, I find a little conservative’

It is more likely that Johnson is drawing voters away from DFL AG candidate Keith Ellison than Republican Doug Wardlow, given not just the legalization issue but Ellison’s personal issues and the views of Johnson, a self-described Social Democrat, on other issues.

“The way I described that to people is generally that I believe the law should reflect the maximum amount of liberty and justice in society,” Johnson said. “You can’t have just one. It would be empty justice, or anarchy. A perfect balance of the two is what the law is for.”

DFL voters might be looking for a palatable alternative to Ellison due to the allegations made by a former live-in girlfriend that the congressman was emotionally and, on one occasion, physically abusive.

Johnson’s own politics are on the left of the spectrum. “The DFL, I find a little conservative.” He supported Bernie Sanders for president in 2016 and then supported Hillary Clinton. He said he has voted for Ellison for the 5th Congressional District representative.

Johnson, therefore, is practiced in answering the question often directed at third-party candidates: would he feel responsible if his presence on the ballot leads to the election of Wardlow, who not only opposes legalization of marijuana but is much more conservative than the Legal Marijuana Now candidates.

His answer is surprising. While he doesn’t concede that legalization of marijuana is a partisan issue in the AG race — saying there is support among Republicans, especially libertarian-leaning ones — he does agree that Ellison is likely to lose more votes to him than Wardlow.

“I think the people of Minnesota need to prevent Doug Wardlow from being elected,” Johnson said last week. “If Keith Ellison is elected, that’s a lot better. If I’m elected, that’s a lot better.”

But he said the impact of his candidacy could be lessened by one act. “It’s possible that Ellison could sap some of my support just by coming out on this common sense issue,” Johnson said.

“If he came out supporting legalized recreational marijuana, not just saying, ‘Well, it’s probably better than opioids,’ or ‘We’d think about it’ or ‘We should definitely have stronger medical,’ but if he switched to legalize recreational marijuana, my campaign would have to consider. Our cause is marijuana justice, so whatever way that is best served, whether it’s me being elected or … a more prominent candidate who supports recreational marijuana, that is what we want to do. So in other words, I’m not running so that I’ll get elected. I’m running to increase marijuana justice.”

(UPDATE: Johnson on Monday endorsed Ellison’s candidacy. )

DFL governor nominee Tim Walz has come out in favor of legalization, telling MPR over the summer: “I support it. I believe that we regulate, we tax, we make it a Minnesota-grown business.”

Article continues after advertisement

Such a stance could give some Legal Marijuana Now voters reasons to vote for Walz rather than the party’s nominee, Chris Wright, said Johnson. “I think our strategy is to run for whatever offices are available in order to put the heat on these other parties because they need to know that people want marijuana legalized,” he said. “If Walz supports recreational legalization, that presumably gives him an advantage over our candidate.

“People would be less inclined to hold out and vote for Chris Wright because they say, well, [Walz] has got a better chance to win and he’s supports recreational marijuana.”

Ellison has expressed some support for legalization, agreeing to the idea during an AG forum before the DFL primary. At that same forum, he also agreed with then-candidate Matt Pelikan that those imprisoned for marijuana offenses should be released and pardoned.

Wardlow, on the other hand, has said the issue is a legislative decision and that he wouldn’t push for any legislative changes.

A popular issue

Johnson, 29, grew up in Robbinsdale and graduated from Cooper High School. After attending both the University of Minnesota Duluth and University of Minnesota Twin Cities, he worked for several years before entering William Mitchell College of Law. Among his internships were with the ACLU Minnesota and the Minnesota Innocence Project, and he graduated from the merged Mitchell Hamline School of Law in 2017.

After getting his degree, Johnson returned to the firm he had worked for before becoming a lawyer, Koch and Garvis, where his practice now includes criminal defense and family law.

He was approached about running for attorney general by Oliver Steinberg, a longtime marijuana legalization advocate. At the time he agreed to seek the office, he expected to be running against incumbent Lori Swanson, who has said she opposes legalization.

“I was eager to do it because obviously I’ve always thought politics was a great way to help people, if you do it right ….. and I strongly believe that marijuana should be legal,” Johnson said.

Unlike most of the states where recreational use is legal, Minnesota voters lack the powers of a ballot initiative — only the Legislature can legalize marijuana or even put a referendum on the ballot. Should it reach that point, Johnson said he thinks it would pass.

“There’s a multitude of reasons it should be legalized and not one that it should stay illegal. First and foremost, I think it’s a liberty issue, an issue of morality — that something that people can do that doesn’t cause harm to others should be allowed.

“It would bring in revenue to the state because it is going to be sold, whether it’s legal or not, and the state and the people don’t get a cut of it if it’s illegal, there’s no taxes. On the opioid issue, there are more harmful drugs that are legal that make money for pharmaceutical companies and others that are less effective and less healthy for people.”

Legalizing marijuana for recreational use — rather than more-strictly regulated medical use — is becoming more common across the U.S. Nine states and Washington, D.C have legalized it for adults. All but Vermont, however, were initiated by petitions from voters, rather than by legislative action. Two additional initiatives — in North Dakota and Michigan — will be voted on next month.

And on Oct. 17, Canada will become the most populous country in the world to have recreational marijuana.

Johnson said, if elected, he would advocate for such a change, and that he would not cooperate in the prosecution of marijuana-related offenses. The one question Johnson doesn’t answer, however, is one he also gets a lot: whether he uses marijuana himself.

“The answer is that it doesn’t matter because I’m not running for attorney general for me, so that I can have a certain lifestyle,” Johnson said. “I’m running for attorney general for the people. And it doesn’t matter because people use it whether I do or not and those people should not be subject to the criminal justice system because that removes respect for the criminal justice system.”