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

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.

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.

“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.

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.

“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.

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 09/04/2019 - 11:34 am.

    At this point, EVERYTHING is about the 2020 election. That applies to the MN GOP, as well.

  2. Submitted by Mark Gruben on 09/04/2019 - 12:31 pm.

    As Ryan Winkler correctly pointed out about legalization, “Minnesota cannot avoid this reality, and should not hide from the inevitable.” Unfortunately, the Republicans are not just against legalization……but against anything the Democrats are for. In this sense, they’re again proving themselves to be The Party of No….and it’s probably going to hurt them badly in 2020.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/05/2019 - 08:57 pm.

      The Democrats – the party of “No”. If you watched CNN last night

      No meat—killing farm jobs

      No coal—killing mining

      No cars—killing manufacturing jobs

      No oil & natural gas—killing energy jobs

      No fracking

      No private healthcare—killing medical jobs

      No plastic straws

      No school choice

      No children – – especially those 3rd world nations..

      • Submitted by richard owens on 09/06/2019 - 10:55 am.

        Binary conclusions do not allow for nuance, investigation, perspectives or creativity.

        You’ll never solve any problem by merely picking a dialectical argument.

        Understanding itself is sabotaged by such thinking.

        In other words, answers require investigation.
        Predictions require measurement.
        Outcomes are not pre-determined by ideology.

        ‘NO’ is a 2-year-old’s favorite disruptor, not a sensible or even logical alternative.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/04/2019 - 12:34 pm.

    Bemis and his group traffic in scare tactics and outright dishonesty. There is a political motivation, but the myriad reasons for supporting legalization have been laid out by the DFL and demonstrated in other states where legalization has been passed.

  4. Submitted by Barbara Boldenow on 09/04/2019 - 12:56 pm.

    Good lord! The legalization in each state has gone smoothly, the people are just fine and the state coffers are benefiting. I’m so sick and tired of using all the fear tactics for political gain and harm. What a bunch of cowards we have or the ones who use their personal dumb experience to make political noise.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/04/2019 - 02:51 pm.

    I thought the twenty cent a gallon gas tax was the high priority in the next election year – along with these other taxes on the poor and middle class.

    Walz proposed:

    Indexing the gas tax to inflation so it would go up automatically without approval by lawmakers.

    Increasing the motor vehicle registration tax rate from 1.25 percent of a vehicle’s value to 1.5 percent and boosting the base tax fee from $10 to $45 to raise about $4 billion over 10 years.

    Boosting the motor vehicle sales tax from 6.5 percent to 6.875 percent to raise about $300 million for roads and bridges over the next decade and $205 million for transit projects.

    Borrowing $2 billion with trunk highway bonds over eight years, starting in 2022.

    For transit projects, the governor called for a 1/8-cent sales tax increase in the seven-county metropolitan area to generate $770 million over 10 years to expand bus and other transit systems.

    He would also borrow $20 million in general obligation bonds as a down payment on $230 million in transit improvements over 10 years. (pioneer press)

    The DFL must have been smoking something when they proposed all these taxes?

    • Submitted by ian wade on 09/04/2019 - 06:31 pm.

      and your solution to pay for improving infrastructure, roads and bridged would what, Mr. Gotzman?

      • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/05/2019 - 08:34 pm.

        You pay for it by not allowing government to grow 50% over the Dayton years and not having government grow around 5% per year.

        Of course – it seems “we don’t have enough money” is the constant cry of the DFL . We all know there will never be enough money to satisfy the DFL special interest groups.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/06/2019 - 01:48 pm.

          “Not letting government grow” does not really explain how improving infrastructure would be paid for. Leaving aside the fact that the idea is nothing more than a catchphrase that would be dismissed as too simplistic for a bumper sticker, it fails to take into account the reality that doing something that is not already being done will require additional funds.

          • Submitted by B. Dahl on 09/11/2019 - 07:57 am.

            I really don’t understand why infrastructure road improvement depend upon motor vehicle taxes solely. We all depend upon the transportation system and living and visiting Minnesota should share in the cost of maintaining and improving it.

  6. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 09/04/2019 - 05:07 pm.

    S.A.M. is an astroturf outfit. We are caught in a legalization pincer movement between colorado and michigan. Let’s, by all means, fight to the death.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/05/2019 - 11:21 am.

      Who is funding it? Alcohol industry?

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/05/2019 - 12:41 pm.

        I went to the Google to answer my own question.

        Who is supporting Smart Approaches to Marijuana and opposing legalization?

        – Indeed, people associated with alcohol companies and trade groups.
        – Opioid companies and their employees and owners. In one case, a Fentanyl manufacturer donates $500k opposing an Arizona initiative.
        – People associated with drug-testing companies
        – Sheldon Adelson has spent over $5 million opposing legalization.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/06/2019 - 01:52 pm.

          Good grief. That could be a textbook example of naked self-interest.

          I couldn’t figure out why the drug makers would be opposed (hey, weren’t we always told that marijuana was the first step towards an inevitable heroin addiction?). It seems that studies have established a causal link between legalized marijuana and painkiller prescriptions.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/06/2019 - 02:34 pm.

            Some people treat chronic pain with marijuana. Its a cheaper, safer, far less addictive substitute for opioids. So, also naked self-interest.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/06/2019 - 04:15 pm.

              I suppose we should all be inured by now to the thought that there is an industry that fights the legalization of a relatively safe, inexpensive treatment for chronic pain because their business model depends on hawking a highly addictive and very expensive medication..

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/06/2019 - 03:02 pm.

            I meant, link between legalized marijuana and fewer painkiller prescriptions.

            “Naked” may not be enough to describe this type of self-interest.

  7. Submitted by John Evans on 09/04/2019 - 10:07 pm.

    Kind of a great portrait of how an issue like this actually plays out. For the most part, it sounds like healthy politics.

    Minnesota has a history of making necessary, major changes in the most infuriatingly equivocal way. We tend to over-process the process of change.

  8. Submitted by Alan Straka on 09/06/2019 - 11:25 am.

    If they are worried about the pro-pot parties taking away votes, the solution is simple. They should come out strongly in favor of legalization (and take action to prove it-words just don’t cut it) making the new parties superfluous.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/06/2019 - 02:04 pm.

    This looks similar to the “Gay Marriage” discussion, the right wingers claim that it would wreck the family, best we can tell today the affect to the family unit has been positive! The tax base would drop, seems we have going in the other direction, and on and on about the sky is falling. Ironically, legalization becomes a good source of income, for the state, potentially lowering overall taxes, but the right wingers, “no” they don’t want additional sources of income, to inventive I guess, a new crop for the farmers, nope right wingers don’t want to give those farmers another crop to grow, More jobs in the supply chain, nope those right wingers don’t want those new jobs, more personal freedom for individuals, nope the right wingers don’t want that incursion into the our religious dominated society, Seems right wingers believe you should have the right to gun down) someone “stand your ground” because they looked at you crooked, but not the right to pick a weed out of your garden and eat it or smoke it. Right wingers seem to believe Big mining, big farming has the right to pollute our land, water and air, but as an individual you don’t have a right to plant what you want in your garden. Seems the right wingers think we should provide $1.5T in tax breaks for the wealthy on the credit card and then blame folks that want responsible spending for the general public as financially irresponsible. Big difference between the left and the right, right wingers can’t seem to see past their self-interest/righteous greedy pocket book, lefties are at least willing to as the preamble tells us “provide for the general welfare” ,

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/11/2019 - 11:24 am.

    This is where the whole vote blue centrism thing runs aground. To begin with, Democrats find themselves in jeopardy by being the anti-progressive Party of small ideas and minimal agendas. That’s how they lose votes to candidates from marijuana Parties the first place.

    Now, that they’ve realized the power of popularity (A common sense observation that has eluded them for decades) they want to co-opt the agenda.

    Two things:

    A) Don’t trust them. We’ve seen this before. They have a history of promising to be the Party of: Labor, women, civil rights, peace, etc. etc. and then they drop the ball the second they become the “champions” of whatever agenda they promised to support. It’s like Klobuchar claiming to be a “progressive”, don’t buy it.

    B) It doesn’t matter who defeats Republicans as long as they caucus with and support liberal agendas and legislation. And whoever wants THAT support will have to earn it. If Democrats are serious about legalization they need the votes, and those votes don’t have come from Democrats.

    We’ve seen this gambit before, co-opt a policy proposal so you can kill it when supporters switch sides. Run on full legalization, and then “explain” why we ended up with a watered down plan to let people buy pot in Canada instead… we had to reach across the isle and compromise of course.

    This could be genuine change of heart, and with any luck if the Democrats win we’ll get legalized marijuana in MN. But the LAST time Democrats ran the table they dialed back all of their liberal initiatives in order to dodge the imaginary threat of: “over-reach”… and then they lost anyways and we’ve been stuck with all the problems they’d promised to fix ever since. But the Vikings got their stadium.

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