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Walz not inclined to keep marijuana debate alive this session

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Gov. Tim Walz
After a Senate committee rejected a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in Minnesota on Monday, Gov. Tim Walz says he is not inclined to revive the issue this session.
Tim Nelson | MPR News file

Gov. Tim Walz expressed his disappointment Tuesday that a Minnesota Senate committee rejected a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana use in Minnesota, but says he has no plans to revive the issue.

Monday's 6-3 vote in the judiciary and public safety Committee ended the marijuana debate for this legislative session.

The committee's six Republican members repeatedly outvoted three Democrats who tried to keep the issue alive for the session. That included a move by supporters to create a task force to study marijuana legalization, an idea that has won approval in a House committee.

"We certainly didn't have an honest debate. We didn't even have a floor vote on it," said Walz. "What we had is a committee saying we killed it and it's dead in a small out of the corner room."

"I don't come to this lightly, I campaigned for two years and this is what Minnesotans were talking about," he added.

The governor could decide on his own to create a task force to study the issue, but he said he has no plans to do that because he's focused on convincing lawmakers to pass his proposed budget, which focuses heavily on education.

"I would ask folks that are passionate about this issue to do some of the lift on this and we will be glad to support," he said. "But I have to tell you if I have to triage, I need to get this education budget through and that's a priority."

The end of the debate, for now, is a disappointment to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been pushing for decriminalization of marijuana because of concerns about racial disparities in enforcement and convictions.

"There was a 2013 report from the national ACLU which found that blacks are almost eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in our state, even though the data shows use rates between blacks and whites are very similar," said Ben Feist, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

Marijuana plants
Marijuana plants grow at LeafLine Labs in Cottage Grove in June 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2015

There are currently efforts among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to change the thresholds for felony marijuana offenses in the state.

State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the judiciary and public safety committee, said it was expert testimony from state health and public safety officials that convinced him it's the wrong time for legalization. He said he has concerns about  impaired driving and the impact on children.

"I think the evidence was so overwhelming in our three-hour debate that we didn't even want to open the door to that effect," he said. But he acknowledged the issue isn't likely to go away.

"Any legislative body next year can do whatever they want," he said.

Ten states have approved recreational marijuana so far and similar proposals are underway in a handful of other states. But advocates for legalization in Minnesota say it's unlikely any changes will happen here while Republicans have control of the state Senate.