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Senate committee torpedoes legal marijuana bill

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A budtender, right, shows cannabis buds to a customer.
A budtender, right, shows cannabis buds to a customer on the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales in California in January 2018.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images 2018

Updated: 5:18 p.m. | Posted: 4:14 p.m.

A Minnesota Senate committee Monday rejected a proposal to legalize marijuana in Minnesota, even rejecting a move by supporters of the bill that tried to change it to create a task force to study the issue.

Six Republican members of the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee repeatedly outvoted three Democrats who tried to keep the issue alive for the session.

A House committee last week backed a bill that would set up a task force to explore legalization.

The Senate bill would have set up a regulatory system for the cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and retail sale of recreational marijuana in Minnesota beginning in 2022. It would have also allowed for the expungement of eligible marijuana-related convictions.

After the vote, Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, conceded that her bill is dead. She said she was hopeful that DFL Gov. Tim Walz will set up a task force on the issue to keep the discussion going.

The legislation appeared doomed from the start of the hearing. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the committee chair, began the hearing with a 30-minute presentation from a critic of recreational marijuana from Colorado.

Dale Quigley, deputy coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative, used data from his home state to raise questions about marijuana's impact on traffic accidents, underage use and drug treatment.

When Franzen got a turn, she said it was time for a discussion about recreational marijuana in Minnesota.

"Prohibition has not worked thus far. Regulating cannabis and providing the necessary oversight and legal framework moving forward will reduce — not increase — the access to youth."

Marcus Harcus, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization, was among those to speak in support of the bill.

"This morning, I myself smoked some high-grade, high-potency cannabis. Not only am I still alive but am thriving partially because of it."

The opponents who testified included Dr. Edward Ehlinger, the former state health commissioner who oversaw the startup of Minnesota's medical marijuana industry. Ehlinger said he is concerned about detrimental effects of recreational marijuana.

"As a pediatrician and a public health professional, I cannot say that this is a drug that is safe or healthy for general use."

As the votes against the proposal stacked up, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, expressed his frustration with the process.

"If this is the way we're just going to shut down debate on a bill that I think the last poll showed 80 percent of Minnesotans want, then frankly I'm really stunned."

In response, Limmer defended the process.

"We have not shut down debate. We gave this bill a lengthy hearing. We gave everyone an opportunity to be represented for and against the bill."

Earlier in the day, Walz repeated his support for legalization.

"I appreciate that we're having the conversation on recreational cannabis. I think it makes sense," he said. "I think Minnesota can get this right. I think we can address the concerns, and at the same time a recognition that prohibition has failed."