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Why the DFL’s pot tour is more about the 2020 election than the 2020 legislative session

Democrats are worried that the presence of marijuana party candidates on the 2020 ballot could hamper their efforts to retain control of the Minnesota House — and retake control of the state Senate. 

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

During the 2019 legislative session, when it came time for the Minnesota House of Representatives’ DFL majority to take a stand on the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, they did  — in the middle of the road.

Calling its approach “Responsible on Cannabis,” the caucus called for a task force to study the issue, while supporting changes to criminal penalties and making it easier for veterans with service connected disabilities to get medical marijuana.

In fact, the only vote on full legalization came not in the House but in the Senate, where a Republican-controlled committee voted it down on party lines.

In the  intervening months, however, the No. 2 leader in the House DFL caucus has come out strongly for legalization, presenting the issue not only as a personal endorsement but as an official position of the 75-member caucus.

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“Marijuana legalization is underway in the United States,” wrote House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler in an op-ed piece in the Star Tribune last month. “Minnesota cannot avoid this reality and should not hide from the inevitable.” 

Winkler then 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.

“The question is not whether, but how,” the Golden Valley lawmaker said in an interview. “The conclusion that the current policy creates more harm than it purports to stop is a pretty strong consensus within the Democratic Party and has something like 60 percent public support.”

Winkler’s caucus did not vote on legalization in 2019, and Republicans in the state Senate have repeatedly said that any such effort won’t pass that chamber. 

So are the DFL efforts more about the 2020 legislative session — or the 2020 election? 

Worried about new party candidates

Every House and Senate seat will be on the ballot in 2020. DFLers will be trying to hold on to the House majority they won in 2018 while trying to regain control of the Senate they lost to the GOP in 2016.

But something will look different when voters look at their ballot in 2020. In many districts, a third or even fourth party will be on the general election ballot along with DFL and GOP nominees. Because their candidates won at least 5 percent of the vote for statewide offices last election, the Legal Marijuana Now party and the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis party are now major parties in Minnesota. That means anyone can file for office under those banners. 

And while there might be some conservative voters who take a libertarian position on marijuana, those most likely to support a marijuana party candidate are likely to take votes from DFLers, not Republicans. That makes the new parties of special concern to the DFL.

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Winkler says he is concerned about any major party competing with his candidates, but acknowledges that generally the two marijuana parties are more worrisome to the DFL than to the GOP.

“If you are motivated to go to the polls because of marijuana and you have a candidate who supports it and one who opposes it — or a party that supports it and a party that opposes it — you’re more likely to vote for the one who supports it,” Winkler said.

A winning issue? 

In late August, Gov. Tim Walz created a stir when he said at an informal press conference that he is asking state agencies to be prepared for legalization should it happen. Departments like corrections, health and revenue are collecting information from other states about the impacts, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff was debriefed by Walz staff during a recent visit to Minnesota. 

Corey Day
Corey Day, who until earlier this year was the executive director of the state DFL, is now helping run a new political committee to promote marijuana legalization as an economic issue. He said he thinks it makes sense strategically for the legislative DFL to be seen as in favor of legalization. 

“I would think that their hope is that this somewhat neutralizes those marijuana parties and doesn’t give them any motivation to have folks run against their candidates,” Day said. “I do know it’s a worry for the House as they go into the elections, to not give these marijuana parties any reason or rhyme to recruit candidates against their candidates.”

Day thinks legalization in Minnesota is akin to “rolling a rock down a hill” because of the momentum the issue has generated from other states. But the political challenge for pro-legalization advocates is the GOP Senate, not the House. 

And that battle — as it was in House races in 2018 — will be fought in the Twin Cities suburbs, where marijuana probably won’t be a major issue. “The 2020 election is going to be monopolized by President Trump and whoever the Democratic candidate is against him,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. “They’re just gonna suck all the oxygen out of the political dialogue in the state of Minnesota.”

But as Day points out, in close races, “every vote, every margin is of concern,” he said. He claims that polling he has seen shows that a pro-legalization vote would not hurt candidates in those battleground districts.

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“The cold, hard reality of it is if there’s going to be any relevance to what they’re trying to do, it has to be in the suburban districts,” Day said.

Where pro-legalization isn’t a plus

Judson “Kim” Bemis is against legalization on its merits. A self-described former “pothead,” he represents Smart Approaches to Marijuana in Minnesota and runs a nonprofit called Gobi Support, which provides resources to parents concerned about their teenager’s use of drugs and alcohol.

To Bemis, the DFL’s decision to be more overtly pro-legalization is about campaign politics. “They’re trying to make this a strawman so they have something to run against in 2020,” Bemis said. “This is a step to try to get people to vote for it, to pass it through the House so the Senate can turn it down and they can be the bad guys.”

Judson “Kim” Bemis
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Judson “Kim” Bemis
But he said the politics aren’t as clear as some DFL strategists might assume. “I think it may blow back and bite them as we’re seeing more evidence of harms,” Bemis said, citing a recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General that warns against adolescents and pregnant women using marijuana.

He said SAM and other groups concerned about legalization — or what he terms “commercialization” — will be prepared to take part in the DFL hearings. “We have been training people in how to talk about this issue,” Bemis said. “Presumably, we would try to get people to those meetings to monitor that and to express a different opinion.”

Garofalo said he is less convinced than other lawmakers that being pro-legalization is a plus in suburban districts. He describes his own position as “not yet.” That is, he’s not opposed to legalization, but he said there are too many questions to be answered before such a move is made in Minnesota.

Garofalo said that all but one of the states that legalized recreational marijuana did so by voter initiative, with no input from legislatures or governors. Illinois is the only state that passed a bill through the Legislature.

“People are given a question: Do you want this or not?” he said of the ballot initiatives. “But from a lawmaker’s perspective, it is much more complicated. It is actually a pretty dramatic change in state law and you have to dig into things like employment law, standards for impairment.

“It’s an easy thing to say you’re in favor of, but it’s difficult to put down the specifics,” he said. “It’s a complicated area of law that is nowhere near mature. You can’t roll it out in February and vote it out in May.”

Once a legislator is put in a position of voting yes, they will become a target to many in law enforcement, the health community and the addiction community, he said. “In competitive suburban districts, advocating for legalizing marijuana would be a liability once law enforcement starts campaigning against first-term candidates.”

Potential for mischief making

There is precedent for the marijuana parties to be influenced by the views on legalization by rival parties. In 2018, legalization supporters fielded candidates for statewide office in hopes of winning major party status — but also to raise the issue’s profile. They used two different names — the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis party for attorney general candidate Noah Johnson and the Legal Marijuana Now Party for auditor candidate Michael Ford. Both ended up winning more than 5 percent of the vote, which means that both parties are major parties until at least the 2022 election.

But Johnson said that he would suspend his campaign and endorse DFL nominee Keith Ellison if Ellison took a clear position on legalization. “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,” Johnson said. “I’m not running so that I’ll get elected. I’m running to increase marijuana justice.”

When Ellison took a clear pro-legalization position, Johnson endorsed him.

Noah Johnson
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis party for attorney general candidate, Noah Johnson, said that he would suspend his campaign and endorse DFL nominee Keith Ellison if Ellison took a clear position on legalization.
But if the DFL’s political play is to keep them out, convincing the leaders of the two parties isn’t enough. (Attempts to reach the leaders of the two parties for comment were unsuccessful.) One of the negatives of major party status is that anyone can run — even candidates who aren’t active in the party and even candidates who might actually support another party. A Republican could have a cynical motivation to run as a legalization party candidate simply to take votes from a DFL incumbent and help the GOP-endorsed candidate in the race.

That potential for mischief making was one of the reasons the two marijuana parties joined with minor party leaders on a bill that, among other things, would give parties the power to prevent candidates not supported by the party from using the label. The bill did not pass.

But the existence of the two new parties has been on the mind of DFL leaders. In May, DFL Chair Ken Martin said he would consider litigation if the secretary of state continues with his plan to share presidential primary voter lists with all major parties, not just those that take part in the primary. Martin does not want the state to provide a valuable voter list to a party that might use it to recruit DFL voters.