Legal cannabis parties weigh election year strategy

A man smokes a marijuana joint at a party celebrating weed in Seattle.
A man smokes a joint at a party celebrating cannabis in Seattle in 2016. Minnesota’s two major political parties supporting legalizing marijuana are making their election year plans while DFL Gov. Tim Walz is calling for the creation of a Cannabis Management Office.
Elaine Thompson | AP Photos 2016

Gov. Tim Walz has long supported legalizing cannabis, but is upping his effort this year by calling for the creation of a Cannabis Management Office in his supplemental budget proposal. The move comes as Minnesota’s two marijuana political parties are considering fielding candidates who may challenge Walz, a DFLer.  

The Legal Marijuana Now Party and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party both earned major party status in 2018 when candidates got more than 5 percent of the vote in two statewide races. But they remain small operations.

Legal Marijuana Now Party Chair Tim Davis said the party will run a candidate for governor this year, but he’s not sure who it will be. Davis said he has no problem challenging Walz, even though Walz agrees with them on legal marijuana.

“Saying things and doing it are two completely different things. He said that before,” Davis said. “They haven’t gotten anything done. We will be running. If we can get candidates, we will run.”

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As major parties, the two organizations have an easier time getting their candidates on the ballot. But the change also opened the door to candidates who weren't necessarily part of their rank-and-file to run in the 2020 election under a false flag. Some believe those candidates helped Republicans defeat Democrats in a few races.

Dennis Schuller, who ran for the Minnesota House two years ago, said during the Legal Marijuana Now Party caucus earlier this month that he thought the issue was overblown.

“We’re not a bunch of Republicans, although some people might be conservative, and we’re not a bunch of Democrats,” Schuller said. “We’re, I think, a common sense group of people that are talking about farm and garden rights through the political system.”  

A founding member of the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party views the issue with more concern.

“This gives too much room for mischief,” said Oliver Steinberg, who currently serves as party treasurer.

A man
Oliver Steinberg, treasurer of the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party of Minnesota.
Courtesy of Oliver Steinberg

Steinberg doesn’t like the ease of filing as major party candidates. Minor party candidates, he noted, can’t be stealthy because they have to collect thousands of signatures to gain ballot access.

“This is something I think that the two new major parties need to protect themselves from and need to publicize,” Steinberg said. “It will be something I think the Legislature should address as well.”

One way to address it is by fielding legislative candidates throughout the state, but the parties still aren't that well organized.

Steinberg said he prefers to support, not challenge, candidates from other parties who share the goal of legalizing marijuana, but he said the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party’s frequent candidate for governor, Chris Wright, is expected to run again.

Chris Wright with the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis.
Chris Wright of the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party during his run for governor in 2018.
Julie Siple | MPR News

Steinberg said others are also ready to announce campaigns for legislative seats and constitutional offices. The party’s endorsing convention will take place remotely on March 12.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden valley, said he’s pleased with the governor’s stepped up action on marijuana legalization. Winkler sponsored a legalization bill that passed in the House last year. The Republican-controlled Senate remains opposed.

“As of today, we have our work cut out for us in the Senate Republican leadership,” Winkler said, adding that he has spent a lot of time in recent years working with third-party activists on legalization. He said they know the issue but have more to learn about politics.

Winkler said he wants to work with the third parties this year to help them better inform voters on who are legitimate candidates and who are pretenders.

“They have a potent power in the election this year,” Winkler said, “and it should be used to advance the issue of legalization rather than get in its way.”