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Walz wants state to be ready to roll on legal marijuana

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Pruning plants
A marijuana plant was pruned at LeafLine Labs in Cottage Grove, Minn. June 17, 2015. The lab is one of two Minnesota facilities producing medicinal marijuana.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2015

Legislation to legalize recreational marijuana use in Minnesota still faces a big hurdle in the Republican-controlled Senate, but that hasn’t stopped DFL Gov. Tim Walz from preparing for its potential passage.

Walz said last week he has directed relevant state agencies to be ready next year to implement the law if a bill ends up reaching his desk.

“My agencies have been tasked to put all of the building blocks in place, from Revenue to the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health. We will have everything ready to go, and we will be able to implement it in Minnesota the minute the Legislature moves this.”

Walz says he’s counting on supporters to continue the push for legalization.

Democrats in the Minnesota House are also preparing, and a key lawmaker is ready to lead the charge.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL- Golden Valley, plans to be the chief sponsor of the legalization bill next year.

“It’s a big issue that needs a lot of attention to be done well,” Winkler said about why he’s becoming involved now.

The form of the legislation in the House is unclear. Ideas range from full legalization to forming a task force to study the issue. Winkler said he wants to hear from the public over the next few months.

“We’re going to around 15 listening sessions around the state to hear people’s interests and concerns about cannabis legalization. I think most of us who have looked at the issue think that legalization is the path we have to take. But I don’t want to prejudge that until we’ve had that conversation with Minnesotans.”

Hurdles remain

Last session, a bill to legalize the cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and retail sale of recreational marijuana in Minnesota beginning in 2022, along with the expungement of eligible marijuana-related convictions, suffered a quick defeat after just one hearing in the Senate.

Even if the House passes a bill next year, the Senate hurdle remains.

“It’s my position that it’s not good for Minnesota. It’s dead as far as I’m concerned in the Senate for next year,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.

Gazelka says he’s troubled by what he sees in the states that have legalized marijuana. During last session’s hearing, critics raised concerns about marijuana's impact on traffic accidents, underage use and drug treatment. With those factors in mind, Gazelka says he has no interest in revisiting the issue.

“We’ve gone through the due diligence and the process to listen to the issue. There were just a lot of negative issues around recreational marijuana.”

Down the road

A leading legalization advocate is already looking beyond next session.

Marcus Harcus, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization, said the Senate’s opposition is a roadblock that needs to be removed in the 2020 election.

“I mean we’re not going to see legalization unless the DFL controls the House and the Senate. That’s just the political reality in Minnesota,” Harcus said. “The only way I think to have a real fighting chance to flip the Senate next year is if the House can pass a good bill.”

Ten states and the District of Columbia have already legalized cannabis for adult use.

Judson “Kim” Bemis chairs the Minnesota chapter of the organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana. He said nationally the group was successful in blocking legalization efforts in 10 states last year.

Bemis worries that state lawmakers are trying to move too fast on legalization. He sees holes in the bills under consideration and not enough attention paid to the negative experiences in other states. Bemis wants more discussion on the economic, safety and health concerns related to commercialization.

“Part of our position is maybe this will happen, but let’s find a state that’s going to do this right, then figure it out from there, rather than plow new ground here,” Bemis said. “We don’t have to be the 12th state. Maybe we could be the 42nd state.”