Legal pot bill moving in MN House despite Senate GOP opposition

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A budtender, right, shows cannabis buds to a customer at a marijuana dispensary in Desert Hot Springs, Calif. In Minnesota, a bill to legalize adult-use cannabis is moving in the state House but not in the Senate.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images 2018

No one can claim that DFL sponsors have rushed through a measure to legalize marijuana without discussion. The bill cleared it’s ninth House committee Tuesday, and the multicommittee path has been considerably longer than the ones other bills travel.

“A bill that has had to make it through this many committee stops? I can’t think of one,” said DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who is guiding the legalization bill on its long journey.

Winkler plans to have the full House vote on the bill next month, a step which has never before taken place for this issue. Yet opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate has prevented the bill from getting any traction in there. Still, Winkler said he believes momentum is building for legal marijuana and that his bill will ultimately earn bipartisan support.

“We are harming people through our prohibition of cannabis, and it is not a legitimate use of the criminal justice system to do that when large majorities of the public think it should be a safe, legal product,” he said.

During Tuesday's public safety committee hearing, Julia Decker of the ACLU of Minnesota spoke in favor of the bill as a way to address racial disparities in law enforcement. Black Minnesotans are more often arrested than white residents, even though usage rates are similar.

“Marijuana criminalization in particular has been a key driver of racial disparities and mass incarceration,” Decker said. “So, now more than ever, it’s time for the Legislature to recognize the disparate harms this criminalization has inflicted.”

Law enforcement officials spoke against the bill. Jeff Potts of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association raised concerns about traffic safety.

“Driving while impaired by any substance, including marijuana, is dangerous,” Potts said. “Marijuana, like alcohol, negatively affects a number of skills required for safe driving.”

No Republicans on the committee voted for the bill. Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said there are too many questions.

"This needs a lot more study, not only in this committee but many committees,” Johnson said. “This bill I don't believe is ready for prime time, and I'm going to ask my members to vote no because there's a lot more work that needs to be done."

DFL Gov. Tim Walz supports legalization, but because of opposition in the Senate, the bill has little chance of reaching him this year, with less than three weeks left in the legislative session.

Earlier in the session, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he does not consider legalizing recreational marijuana a priority and is concerned about unintended consequences of such a move.

But Winkler is confident that Gazelka and other Republicans will eventually get on board. The passage of a ballot initiative last fall in South Dakota gives him hope.

“Legalization received almost as many votes in South Dakota as Donald Trump did. It’s not a partisan issue,” Winkler said. “It’s a question of whether Republican elected officials are ready to step up and listen to their voters.” 

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