ST. PAUL — Minnesota Democrats say they want to legalize and regulate marijuana in next year’s legislative session, but first they want members of the public to tell them how they should do it.
In front of the Farmers Union building at the State Fair on Thursday, Aug. 29, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Minnesota House said his chamber will pass a marijuana legalization bill next year. But before then, he announced, Democrats will hold a series of town halls across the state to hear what Minnesotans think about the issue.
“We believe that Minnesota can have the best marijuana laws in the country,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, who handed out blue cowbells inscribed with the words “Be Heard on Cannabis” to fairgoers. “We think it’s vitally important that Minnesotans weigh in directly on this policy change.”
The series of 15 community conversations, dubbed “Be Heard on Cannabis,” will take place over the coming months. The first three will be held in Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Cloud in September and October.
House Democrats are trying to build momentum as they mount their first serious push for legalization. They did not make it a priority in this past legislative session; the Republican Senate was the only chamber to hear a legalization bill, and a committee of lawmakers voted it down. Democrats instead pushed a proposal that would have established a task force to study legalization, but it did not survive in negotiations between the House and Senate.
Lawmakers did pass new laws to expand the state’s troubled medical marijuana program, which is widely seen as one of the most restrictive in the country. Minnesota’s two medical cannabis manufacturers can now run twice as many dispensaries, write off their business expenses and buy hemp from local farmers.
Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has said he supports full marijuana legalization. In fact, he has already ordered state agencies to prepare for it, even though Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka says a proposal will die in his chamber.
Gazelka, of Nisswa, previously cited concerns that legal marijuana could lead to more incidents of impaired driving and hinder teen brain development.
Even if Republicans vote it down again, Winkler said the effort from Democrats will be worthwhile. He said many lawmakers need to be educated on the topic so they can discern myths from facts.
Eventually, Winkler argues, Minnesota will have to have to decide whether it wants to catch up with the rest of the nation on the issue. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana for adult use.
As more and more states legalize adult use of cannabis, Minnesota can’t "stand on the sidelines and hope it doesn’t happen here,” Winkler said. “That is not a responsible way to address this issue.”
Marcus Harcus of the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization said he is “very encouraged” that Democratic leadership is on board for recreational pot. He testified in favor of legalization at the State Capitol earlier this year and was on hand for the town hall announcement at the Fair on Thursday.
“We want to see a bill passed in the House,” Harcus said. “But the big challenge is going to be the Senate.”