Bills to make marijuana smoking legal enter fray

Updated at 1 p.m. with Dayton comments

A longshot legislative drive to legalize marijuana for recreational use has begun.

A pair of bills set for introduction Thursday in the Minnesota House would establish regulations for cultivation, sales and taxation of marijuana. It would make the drug legal for people 21 and older. They could possess up to one ounce at a time for personal use but there would still be limits on smoking it in public places.

Rep. Jon Applebaum, DFL-Minnetonka, said even if his bill doesn't advance in the Republican-controlled Legislature it's time to gauge public interest.

"The world is changing and Minnesotans like many other states are rightfully developing different attitudes on marijuana,” Applebaum said. “I believe this bill will start a much-needed conversation to ultimately pass this measure."

The second bill, sponsored by DFL Rep. Jason Metsa of Virginia, would throw the question to voters in a constitutional amendment.

"It would just be a choice I believe voters need to look at themselves. Minnesota should be a state that participates like many others have done recently across the country and send a message to the federal government," Metsa said. "It would be a better representation than just us at the Legislature to allow voters that choice."

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said she too intends to sponsor legislation proposing a constitutional amendment to allow for personal use and cultivation of cannabis.

Applebaum is deputy House minority leader but made clear he wasn’t staking out a caucus position with his bill.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton says he opposes making marijuana more accessible.

"I don't support it," Dayton told reporters. "We've got enough drugs, an epidemic drugs that are flowing in through our society right now and law enforcement has to deal with all the consequences of it."

He's unlikely to see a bill reach him anyway.

House Public Safety and Security Policy Committee chair Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said the bills won’t go anywhere this year. He said he doesn’t intend to hold a hearing.

“It has no future whatsoever,” Cornish said.

“The core objection to it is my 32 years of experience as a cop on the street and in the woods has shown me that marijuana is definitely a precursor to more-serious drugs,” he added. “And law enforcement people who have gone through the doors on warrants for hard drugs say it always starts with marijuana. It’s present at almost every scene.”

Applebaum responded that making marijuana legal would free up police to focus on other crimes.

“Properly legalizing and regulating the production and distribution and sale of marijuana would allow law enforcement to focus on more-violent crimes,” he said.

Under the legislation, employers could limit possession or consumption according to their workplace policies, and driving under the influence of the drug would still be a crime.

Minnesota has a medical marijuana program but the drug is only available in non-leaf forms to people with certain illnesses.

Marijuana is legal for recreational use or will be under laws set for enactment in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. A few of those states had voter-approved initiatives last fall that won’t kick in until 2018.

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