Politics and Government

Legal cannabis bill returns with prospects still hazy

A budtender, right, shows cannabis buds to a customer at a marijuana dispensary in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., in 2018. Minnesota House Democrats have again introduced legislation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, but it is unlikely to move in the Republican Senate.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images 2018

Democrats in the Minnesota House are again proposing legislation to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said Monday that he is introducing an adult-use cannabis bill that would also address criminal justice inequities in the current system.

“Our priorities are to end the black market for cannabis and move to a safe, regulated marketplace where consumers know what they’re getting,” Winkler said. “To allow Minnesotans the freedom to make their own decisions on a product that has some challenges but is relatively safe, especially compared to other products.”

Winkler sponsored a similar bill last session, but it fell by the wayside as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. He put the bill together after a statewide tour to discuss the legalization issue.

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said legalization would end racial disparities in the enforcement of current marijuana laws. She said black Minnesotans are far more likely to be arrested than white Minnesotans.

“This is one of the worst disparities in the nation, and true even though both groups use it at similar rates,” Moran said.

There is some bipartisan support for the proposal, and DFL Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign a bill. But Senate Republican leaders strongly oppose it.

"We are focused on the Minnesota priorities that balance the budget without raising taxes, safely reopen schools and businesses to recover our economy, and support families,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “I would not consider legalizing recreational marijuana as a Minnesota priority.  

Gazelka added that he would be open to looking at additional medicinal uses and a conversation around drug sentencing but that he’s worried about unintended consequences of legal recreational marijuana use. 

Two political parties in the state that organized around the single issue of legalizing marijuana achieved legal major party status by generating sufficient support at the polls. Some Democrats suspect Republicans encouraged candidates to run in 2020 under the Legal Marijuana Now and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis party banners to siphon progressive support away from DFL candidates in close races. 

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, said she remains committed to carrying the bill, which she said would responsibly regulate cannabis.

“As an attorney and mother of two young boys, I am keenly aware of the need to make sure it is done right,” Franzen said.

Winkler said the tide is shifting on legalization, and that the Senate GOP should get on board. Winkler noted the recent passage of a legalization ballot measure in South Dakota.

“People are willing to drive to Wisconsin in order to buy fireworks, so they sure as heck are going to drive to South Dakota to buy cannabis,” he said.

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