New political parties try to organize around support for legal marijuana

Legalize marijuana rally
Supporters of legalizing marijuana in Minnesota rallied at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. back in 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Minnesota’s two new major political parties are trying to get their pro-cannabis message ready for the 2020 campaign. But the parties don't agree on some key strategies, and even some allies think they have a lot more work to do to get organized and recruit candidates.

A key issue is how a legal marijuana system would work. Representatives of the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party delivered petitions this month to Gov. Tim Walz, top legislative leaders and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. The documents detail their demand to legalize cannabis and allow people to grow it without a license.

Chris Wright, the party’s chairman, said the state constitution is clear that no one needs a license to sell products from a farm or garden, and that his party won’t support any legalization measure unless it restores the freedom to grow, which was undone by legislation in 1935.

Neither of the DFL-backed legalization bills introduced last session pass that test, and Wright said his party will target legislators who don’t agree.

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“We want to run against those candidates who’ve proposed legalization, actually. We want them to vote no on any legislation that requires a license,” Wright said.

Chris Wright with the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis.
Candidate for governor Chris Wright with the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis party sits for a portrait inside the Kling Public Media Center on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018.
Julie Siple | MPR News

DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who plans to introduce a new legalization bill next session, said he is aware of the cultivation issue and will consider it. But Winkler made it clear he won’t be pressured by the new parties.

"I don't think that we will be just doing what any one group or organization of individuals wants us to do. We will be looking at what's best for the state," Winkler said.

Minnesota gained two new major political parties — the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party — because their candidates did better than 5 percent in two statewide contests in the 2018 election.

The new status brings new responsibilities. Oliver Steinberg, a longtime legalization advocate with connections to both parties, would like to see them now merge into one and build a stronger organization. Steinberg is not satisfied with the pace of change.

“I don’t see a systematic and well-organized transition or maturing of the organizations,” he said. “Both of these parties have been more of an idea than an organization.”

Steinberg said 2020 is coming fast and it's time to recruit candidates and get ready for precinct caucuses. He said the parties have a responsibility to the voters who supported them last year.

“It’s going to take focused and selfless work on the part of the handful of really involved activists to get to the point by February where we’re able to conduct what we have to do as a major party.”

The chair of the Legal Marijuana Now Party, Marty Super, said his organization plans to field legislative candidates in districts that make sense. One path for maintaining major party status involves having 45 candidates for state representative and 23 for state senator. Super said he doesn’t want to challenge incumbents who are on their side.

“In general, if one of the candidates supports us and looks like they have a chance, we don’t want to run against them. So, it’s sort of strategic. In a district where we have both the Republican and Democrat don’t support us, then absolutely we’ll run.”

Both cannabis-focused parties also plan to have candidates for next year's U.S. Senate race, which would also maintain major party status if they win at least 5 percent of the vote.

One person planning to run next year for a legislative seat under the Legal Marijuana Now banner is Patricia Jirovec McArdell of St. Paul. She intends to be a candidate for the Minnesota Senate seat currently held by DFLer Dick Cohen, who also supports legalization.

“I believe that my running in this is something that will get these conversations going so that I can ask questions and have the rest of the candidates state their position on it,” she said, “and to get the conversation more normalized out in public.”