Minnesota marijuana advocates draw on Colorado experience

A budtender, right, shows cannabis buds to a customer at a marijuana dispensary.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

Two former Colorado public officials, initially opposed to legalized marijuana, shared advice this week with Minnesota lawmakers and others about what to consider if the drug’s status changes here.

Stanley Garnett and Doug Friednash, who are now members of a Denver law firm with a cannabis and industrial hemp unit, said they now believe their state made the right move. They were in Minnesota at the invitation of state House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, the DFL legislator leading a marijuana legalization drive.

One purpose of their visit was to talk through concerns about recreational marijuana and regulatory considerations if Minnesota moves ahead. Friednash, a former chief of staff to ex-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, said states that followed theirs have the benefit of learning from that experience.

“For us it took a lot of time because no one had done it before and it was scary,” Friednash said. “We were really pretty anxious about the implications, knowing the whole world was watching what we were doing.”

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Three men sit at a table in front of a microphone
Former Boulder County District Attorney Stanley Garnett talks about Colorado's experience with legal marijuana. To his left is Doug Friednash, a former chief of staff to the governor. To his right is Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Garnett, a former three-term district attorney for Boulder County, said he was opposed to recreational cannabis before voters made it legal beginning in 2014.

“From a practical perspective and from a public safety perspective, I’ve come to conclude that legalization and appropriate regulation of marijuana is better than criminalization,” Garnett said. “And I think that’s what the experience in Colorado has shown.”

Garnett said he was skeptical prior to a successful 2012 referendum that required lawmakers to allow for legal cultivation, possession, consumption and sales of marijuana in multiple forms to adults.

“The folks opposed to legalization cast the issue in very stark terms. It was basically a slippery slope, western civilization as we know it in Colorado will collapse if there is legalization, crime rates will go up, the homicide rates will go up and public safety will be impacted,” Garnett said. “That has not happened.”

Minnesota currently has a medicinal marijuana program. Participants must be seeking treatment for a limited set of conditions and can only access the drug in pill, oil or vapor form.

Winkler said he and other advocates of a broader legal marijuana structure will release a set of regulatory principles in a few weeks as they craft a bill for consideration next session. Majority Democrats in the House intend to advance such a bill, but Republicans who lead the Senate are on record against making marijuana legal for non-medicinal use.

“We’re trying to create a regulated, legal marketplace,” Winkler said. “That does not mean that we will stop enforcing illegal activity related to cannabis. In fact, when it comes to youth access or the black market, we will expect very rigorous enforcement of a state law.”

During their stay, the Colorado duo also met with leaders of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, attended a citizen town hall and had sessions with lawmakers and other groups weighing the impact of the marijuana proposal.

The MPPOA, which has been cool to past proposals to broaden marijuana access, is looking for answers to key concerns. Executive Director Brian Peters said those include how to best detect drug-impaired drivers and keep illicit marijuana off the streets.

“My organization is more than willing to be at the table to work through those,” Peters said, adding that he appreciated the willingness of the Colorado officials to talk about what complications they encountered.

Friednash said other states can learn from Colorado’s early mistakes. He says packaging and labels needed to change on edible marijuana products to make them less attractive to children. And there needed to be tighter controls over plant supplies.

He said licensing and tax rates are also important because setting the levels too high can feed a black market.

Friednash said it would be wise to allow at least a year to develop a regulatory structure before permitting sales, although he said some of that work could come ahead of legislative approval.

“You have to think about agricultural impacts. You have to think about revenue impacts. You have to think about public safety impacts,” he said. “Impacts to the education system, human services.”

DFL Gov. Tim Walz, a supporter of legalization, previously instructed his state agencies to begin working through issues under their jurisdictions that might be involved in recreational cannabis.