Is the legalization of recreational marijuana in Minnesota inevitable?

State Sen. Melisa Franzen introducing House File 420
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Melisa Franzen speaking about the Senate bill on Monday as state Rep. Mike Freiberg, left, and state Sen. Scott Jensen, right, look on.

The dilemma facing the Minnesota Legislature is the same one confronting a bunch of states. If there really is momentum behind the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes, do they join up now or wait until it becomes inevitable?

Waiting conflicts with a fundamental Minnesota value: being a leader on public policy issues. If it can’t be first, at least it likes to think it’s best. Indeed, there are still past and present elected officials who think the state’s late-in-the-game medical marijuana program is a model, despite its need for repeated changes to make it viable medically and economically.

So if broad legalization of marijuana is inevitable, can the Minnesota psyche handle being behind (at least) 10 other states, including Michigan? And Canada? Or, for want of a better-written initiative, North Dakota?

“We have two options in front of us,” said Rep Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley Monday. “One is to attempt to get in front of this issue and put strong public health protections in place. The other is to wait for it to come to us.”

‘The ship is sailing’

Monday saw the introduction of several marijuana-related bills. House File 420 (yes, that’s the real number) and Senate File 619 would legalize and regulate marijuana for those over the age of 21.

While the introductory details of a bill that will likely go through many changes might have little consequence, the companion bills would set a date of January 1, 2020 for legalization. While the bills are silent on how or how much recreational marijuana would be taxed, they do set aside some future revenue: for police training to recognize drivers impaired by the psychoactive component of marijuana; for mental health treatment; and for public education on the effects of the drug — especially among children.

The bills also have provisions to expunge criminal records of those convicted of simple possession. Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, said the two aspects of marijuana policy, legalization and expungement, should be in the same legislation.

“I think they do go hand-in-hand because the people who have been hurt by the prohibition are the same people that we are trying to restore in terms of restorative justice and race justice with this bill,” Franzen said.

Sen. Scott Jensen, a family practice doctor from Chaska and a Republican, said he would not have imagined three months ago that he would be standing as a co-sponsor of legalization legislation. But he said he had constituents ask him to get involved and spent time studying results of medical research and the experiences of states that have legalized marijuana for those over age 21.

“I think the ship is sailing,” Jensen said. Even in his relatively conservative district, well over 90 percent of those attending a town hall meeting over the weekend said they favored at least having a discussion about legalization.

Jensen said he doesn’t prescribe medical marijuana but does refer patients to other doctors who will. That said, he thinks it has a medicinal benefit and said most of his patients over the age of 50 — three-fourths or more — have conditions for which the state program allows its use. “If people want medical marijuana, they can get it,” Jensen said.

No rush in the state Senate

At the very least, the state Legislature will talk about legalization in 2019, even if it is only one house of that Legislature. But opposition — or at least a lack of urgency — in the state Senate suggests it won’t pass in 2019.

Earlier this month, Gov. Tim Walz reaffirmed his support for legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana, but he also said the Legislature should discuss concerns raised by opponents. “It should happen as fast as Minnesotans are comfortable with,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
“There should be hearings because you’re looking to bring everyone into the conversation so when we make a decision one way or the other … at least the discussion happened,” Walz said. “I certainly don’t want to rush to the point where people feel you didn’t talk about public safety, you didn’t talk about long-term addiction, you didn’t talk about societal costs.”

Walz said he thinks it could happen this session. But the leader of the state Senate., Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said while he thinks there will be a “conversation” this year, he doubts the Senate will be ready to vote on the issue.

“There’s gonna be a lot of conversation related to that,” he said. “I’ve mentioned a number of things I’m concerned about. I’m concerned about homeless rates are up, car accidents are up, mental health development for youth is down. So there are issues I’m already raising red flags about. I want to hear what other states, what the results are.”

His reluctance is also tied to opioid abuse legislation, Gazelka said, “Why would we suddenly, on the other side, expand with recreational marijuana?”

There is debate about the impacts of marijuana when it comes to impairment and addiction. Proponents, however, don’t necessarily say marijuana is good for people, outside some medical applications. Instead, they say it is not different enough from alcohol to justify treating it differently.

Jensen said he would give the same advice to a patient who asked about recreational marijuana that he would if they asked about alcohol or tobacco. “There’s no study that says it’s good for you,” Jensen said. “If there’s a medical condition we’re treating, it may well provide enhanced health. But in terms of using it recreationally, I’m not going to stand in front of a group of people and say that’s good for people.”

But he said with regulation comes a more consistent and purified product. And more use could broaden use for medical conditions not yet allowed by state law.

Opposition among DFLers, too

The issue is technically bipartisan, although DFLers tend to be more supportive. Not among those DFLers, however, is Sen. Chris Eaton of Brooklyn Center. Eaton is a leader in the drive to impose fees on the pharmaceutical industry to fund the state’s response to problems associated with opioid abuse. She said she is a no vote on recreational marijuana and said she doubts it will even receive a hearing in the Senate this year.

“I’m glad we’ll have another year to talk about it,” she said.

Her opposition stems from her work with drug and alcohol addiction and recovery issues. “I don’t think we do a very good job with alcohol,” Eaton said. “To add another ‘alcohol’ equivalent to the mix with the same percentage of addiction, the same impediments to driving” isn’t a good idea.

Eaton has supported moves to decriminalize possession of marijuana, mostly due to racial justice issues raised by the high numbers of convictions among people of color. But she said she hasn’t been able to arrive at a way to distinguish between small possession and larger-scale production and distribution.

There are other measures, most notably a proposed constitutional amendment that would ask voters to approve a change that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. While some have raised the question of whether this issue rises to the level of the state constitution, it is the only way to put matters before voters.

Clarification: This story was edited to show that Sen. Jensen asked those at a town hall whether they favored having a discussion about legalization, not whether they favored legalization.

Comments (49)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/29/2019 - 10:28 am.

    Gazelka really misses the point – legalizing marijuana and fighting opioid abuse goes hand in hand. It makes perfect sense to do both. And I know Eaton is driven by the fact her daughter died from a heroin overdose, but again, marijuana can be a substitute for opoids. Its a solution, not a separate problem.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/29/2019 - 10:34 am.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but am I correct that there is still no scientific method to determine if one has smoked enough marijuana as to be too impaired to drive a motor vehicle?

    What I’m looking for is a state law that has been upheld after a few rigorous court challenges. I’m not interested in any untested or unproven theories.

    As far as putting this in the constitution, please, it’s not that important. That’s why we have a legislature.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/29/2019 - 11:28 am.

      You can do a blood test that will determine the active amount of THC in your system. Some jurisdictions have adopted legal limits on how much is too much, much like blood-alcohol tests. Some use subjective tests to determine whether someone has used too much. The laws are too new for the courts to have fully worked through all the legal implications.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/30/2019 - 08:25 am.

        Thanks Pat.

        As far as a blood test, how often is that done for alcohol, as opposed to a breathalizer?

        Who administers blood tests, and where are they done?

        My thought is that pretty well any cop can easily administer a breathalizer, but that a blood test is a higher bar, in that I suspect it takes more time for law enforcement and the cost is higher. It’s not rocket science, but we can’t let just anyone stick a needle in someone’s are. Also, if the blood draw is more time consuming, the LEO may be less inclined to do it.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/30/2019 - 11:46 am.

          All correct.

          As it stands now, a breath test can be administered on the side of the road with immediate results. Not so with blood. In Canada – or at least some parts – police will be able to take blood tests on the road where there are signs of impairment.

          Lots of things to work out.

    • Submitted by Robert McManus on 01/29/2019 - 12:03 pm.

      It has been shown time and again around the country that state legislators don’t have the courage to support legalization measures. Despite the obvious social benefits of lowering prison populations, treating pain with a non-addictive(or at least significantly LESS addictive substance) than opioid pain killers, and not telling adults what to do in their private lives, the forces of social conservatism have so thoroughly brain washed the less adventurous thinkers that seem so prevalent in our legislative system to fear a plant that has been utilized by mankind for thousands if not tens of thousands of years. Sometimes putting an issue before the public is the only way to serve the public interest.

  3. Submitted by N. Coleman on 01/29/2019 - 11:27 am.

    In the second to last paragraph, it says that Eaton has supported moves to decriminalize marijuana. Marijuana has been decriminalized in MN since 1976. SF 192 is clarifying that CBD possession or sale is not a crime.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/29/2019 - 11:57 am.

      Which is odd, given the large number of people still being arrested and prosecuted for marijuana offenses in Minnesota.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/30/2019 - 08:38 am.

      Mr. Coleman, I had several chances to vote for you. I never did, and still would not. It’s great to see you contribute here; God bless and good luck with your health.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/30/2019 - 11:49 am.

        I’m not sure that’s actually Mr. Coleman, because the comment originally came up under a different name.

        For the record, as a long time St. Paul resident, I have had 5 opportunities to vote for Norm Coleman. 0 for 5 for me.

  4. Submitted by Jon Ruff on 01/29/2019 - 12:00 pm.

    My thanks to MinnPost for providing some forum for the discussion of Cannabis in Minnesota.
    I followed the discussion of Modern Cannabis through an e-magazine called “The Cannabist” that was a part of The Denver Post before The Post was eviscerated by parasitism . Colorado has been a real leader toward developing and furthering the issues around this topic. I suggest using them to model our future legalization effort.
    I commend Sen Jensen for his professional open-minded approach to better represent both his constituents and to treat his patients.

  5. Submitted by Alan Straka on 01/29/2019 - 12:30 pm.

    This is a bit off topic but how does the legalization of hemp affect the enforcement of marijuana laws? One needs a license to grow hemp, process it or possess seeds and propagative material but it would seem the dried plant material itself is legal to possess (is this the case?). Since there is no difference between hemp and marijuana except for THC content will the police need to test before arresting someone for possession?

    • Submitted by Tory Koburn on 02/04/2019 - 07:50 pm.

      I haven’t looked at the new laws, but in practice, higher-quality hemp – the kind that could reasonably sold in mass-quantities – is necessarily going to be low in THC, because strains of cannabis that have high THC are dedicating more of the plant’s energy towards bud growth, to the detriment of strong stem growth.

      Additionally, I expect large-scale production will involve some kind of field testing. As far as arresting people for possession of hemp, I doubt it. Someone willing to smoke actual hemp has already punished themselves enough, I think.

  6. Submitted by Virginia Pleban on 01/29/2019 - 12:55 pm.

    I was referred to the medical marijuana clinic and to me it is run pretty loose. I never did see a doctor and I spent about $400.00 and none of it helped me. I still can’t figure out what the $200.00 was for that the state received. To me a person is going to the so called habit forming drugs to another habit forming drug. The more you use it the more you will need. If you legalize marijuana for recreational use that will become a problem also. When are people going to wake up that MN waits until everything gets out of control and then they do something about it and the taxpayers have to foot the bill.

    • Submitted by Kelly Guncheon on 01/29/2019 - 01:43 pm.

      Who were you certified by? You need to be certified by a doctor, physician assistant or advanced practice registered nurse. You just can’t walk in and ask for it.

      Second, why would the medical marijuana clinic, which only dispenses marijuana, need a doctor? Does your pharmacy have a doctor when you pick up a prescription?

      Finally, your description of marijuana a being “habit-forming” reveals your uneducated bias against marijuana.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/29/2019 - 02:13 pm.

      Yeah, I’d be curious about the name of your doctor and the dispensary you went to. I have some questions about your story.

  7. Submitted by ian wade on 01/29/2019 - 01:21 pm.

    Gazelka just oozes more evidence of how out of touch conservatives are with modern society.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 01/29/2019 - 06:48 pm.

      Out of touch with current reality. He’s got his finger on the pulse of a substantial demographic of Minnesotans who just want to go back the the 50’s.

  8. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 01/29/2019 - 01:38 pm.

    It is beyond me how seemingly intelligent people still deny that marijuana has no addictive potential and is safer than alcohol.

    Here’s one thing that I would support taxes on. Let the pot heads pay their fair share. You play, you pay. Alcohol, nicotine and gasoline are taxed. Why not the reefer.

    But keep the production private and don’t let the government pick the suppliers like they did with medical cannabis.

    • Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 01/29/2019 - 02:13 pm.

      Paul, Just like alcohol, it is addictive to “some”. Cigarettes, however are entirely addictive, and they are made even more so by tobacco companies. Real intelligent people are aware of this.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/29/2019 - 02:16 pm.

      1) Science. People believe in science.

      2) agree 100 percent.

      3) they botched the medical badly here, but you need to regulate it tightly.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 01/29/2019 - 03:08 pm.

      “Pot heads?”
      and the evidence continues to mount…

      • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 01/29/2019 - 03:49 pm.

        Yes Ian, pot heads. I’m sure you have used terms like “boozers,” “junkies” and others when talking about people who abuse mind altering substances. I call them what they are.

        • Submitted by Tom Melchior on 01/29/2019 - 06:08 pm.

          There is a difference between “using” and “abusing.” If one goes out for happy hour and has a couple of cocktails with friends, or enjoys a glass of wine with dinner, are they “boozers?”

        • Submitted by ian wade on 01/29/2019 - 07:10 pm.

          Actually, I don’t. But the fact that you automatically assume someone who smokes marijuana would abuse it just proves my point.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/29/2019 - 07:01 pm.

      Addictive? Sorry, know lots of folks that smoked lot’s of pot, don’t recall any addicts, dudes that like to get stoned, ok, but dudes that got the shakes, cold sweats, withdrawals, had to have a pot-fix, can’t say I have met a one over 40-50 years of knowing folks smoking pot.

  9. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 01/29/2019 - 02:09 pm.

    I know that legalization is inevitable, because my ultra conservative representative from SW Minnesota emailed me asking for my support in taxing and regulating recreational marijuana.

  10. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 01/29/2019 - 04:40 pm.

    Prohibition did not work for alcohol, which is much more dangerous and harmful. Considering marijuana as dangerous as hard drugs defies reason. While I never have or will use drugs, I think those who prefer pot to alcohol should be able to make that choice without criminal penalties for mere use.

  11. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/29/2019 - 05:40 pm.

    If pot smoke were confined to the user it would be okay. In that me and everyone else gets the second hand smoke, recreational pot is not okay.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/30/2019 - 01:41 pm.

      TC, fair enough, can we say the same for cigarettes, auto exhaust, coal fired power plants, farm/industrial/mining run off into the water ways, lakes, oceans, into our lakes, streams, waterways, etc. etc. etc.?

      • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/31/2019 - 09:35 am.

        Of course many things going on today need to be fixed. Pot and cigarettes are the easy ones to fix so they should be eliminated them. The rest in your litany will require getting rid of a party that hates regulations and science. Good luck with that one.

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/31/2019 - 04:10 pm.

          TC, Did I read this correctly? “Pot and cigarettes are the easy ones to fix” Last check tobacco products are still legal despite, lots of smokers, and lots of $ on both sides of the issue, and lots of medical study that it is extremely detrimental to health, Seems we (taxpayers) still provide governemnt support to tobacco growers, in McConnell’s state no less, If it was easy to fix it would already be fixed, not sure I know anyone that says a tobacco habit is a good thing.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 02/01/2019 - 03:54 pm.

      That’s really not an issue. In Colorado for example, it’s still illegal to smoke in public. I think Oregon only allows public consumption if it’s being vaped.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/02/2019 - 07:20 am.

      They’re coming up with lots of ways to use pot that don’t involve smoking.

  12. Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 01/29/2019 - 06:38 pm.

    I love how when Democrats accuse Republicans of only caring about “social issues” and then when they get in power, all they want to do is focus on things like legalizing pot.

    Heck– let’s legalize heroin and cocaine while we’re at it. LSD! All of it. Let’s go! Brilliant.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/30/2019 - 08:18 am.

      If you think the sum total of the DFL legislative agenda is marijuana, you haven’t been paying attention.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/30/2019 - 11:53 am.

      The difference, of course, being that Republicans want to restrict the rights of women and LGBT when it comes to social issues. But no one is going to make anyone else have to use marijuana.

      Also, brilliant argument on heroin and LSD. Really sharp stuff

  13. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/30/2019 - 08:28 am.

    The term “de-decriminalization” is thrown around a lot. Just what does and does not that entail? Is like getting a parking ticket? Does the amount matter, one ounce versus one pound?

    • Submitted by Robert McManus on 01/30/2019 - 10:08 am.

      This is very easy to google. Less than 42.5 grams is a petty misdemeanor. Above that gets you into felony territory. I just googled “Minnesota marijuana laws”.

  14. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/31/2019 - 10:26 am.

    Second hand smoke? that seems like a minor concern that can easily be addressed.

    I can’t have an open beer on a public side walk, and some parks ban all alcohol. Smoking cigarettes is allowed in most public places, although some parks are smoke free.

    It seems like a no-brainer that we can limit the smoking of recreational pot to private property. And where cigarettes are no banned (restaurants, offices, etc.) we can extend that to pot.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/02/2019 - 07:25 am.

      What about ingestable pot? (Think brownies and gummi bears for example.)

      • Submitted by ian wade on 02/04/2019 - 03:58 pm.

        The hip term the kids use is “edibles.” 🙂
        Actually, this is the only part of legalization that concerns me a bit. Edibles tend to hit a little harder, especially if one is new at using them.

  15. Submitted by Scott Wood on 01/31/2019 - 11:15 pm.

    Why is a constitutional amendment “the only way to put matters before voters”? Why can’t they just pass a statute that legalizes cannabis conditionally on passage of a referendum called for by the same statute?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/01/2019 - 01:25 pm.

      It’s my understanding that the legislature does not have the authority to do putting a binding referendum on the ballot.

      • Submitted by Scott Wood on 02/08/2019 - 07:18 pm.

        What provision of the constitution precludes it? Any court precedent? How would it be different from any other statutory provision that has a precondition for taking effect (e.g. reciprocity from other states)? The referendum wouldn’t be directly enacting a law; it would just provide an input of fact that the language passed by the legislature uses.

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