ST. PAUL — Minnesota House members are pushing to legalize recreational marijuana and expunge low-level marijuana charges retroactively, saying their bill is a step toward addressing the unequal enforcement of drug laws between races and modernizing drug law to fit changing public opinion.
The bill introduced on Monday, Feb. 1, would legalize and regulate recreational cannabis for Minnesotans aged 21 and older, expunge criminal records for those previously convicted of low-level marijuana charges, allow for small home-grow operations and more.
The bill’s chief author is House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, and has the backing of top Democrat House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park.
“We are seeing in states across the country — and even our neighbor in South Dakota — that the issue of legalizing cannabis, creating a fair, regulated marketplace, addressing the deep inequities in our justice system, is a mainstream, bipartisan, broadly supported issue,” Winkler said at a Monday news conference.
Thanks to a ballot measure in November, South Dakotans voted to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana programs, though the fate of the programs will be decided in court.
Most of House File 600's proponents are Democrats, but the measure has some support across the aisle, including from Ways and Means Committee Republican lead Rep. Patrick Garofolo, R-Farmington. In a Monday statement, he said the state’s current cannabis laws are “expensive, inefficient, and unfair.”
“Contrary to what some will say, this is not a partisan issue,” he continued. “Many Republicans are interested in reforming these expensive laws. ... Reasonable people may disagree on the best way to fix our broken system, but nobody can responsibly defend the status quo.”
Indeed, in South Dakota, support for both medical and recreational marijuana transversed party lines. The recreational ballot measure was approved by 54%, and medical by 70%. Roughly 48% of South Dakota voters were registered Republicans as of the general election, per the secretary of state.
While Winkler said it’s “unclear” how Republican politicians will respond going forward, he sees from South Dakota’s outcome that public opinion on both sides of the aisle has shifted in favor of legalization.
“The tide is shifting and is coming in very strong,” he said. “If we are not in front of this ... we’re going to be ending up with more problems with cannabis than we have now.”
With South Dakota most likely on its way to a recreational program, Winkler said time is of the essence in Minnesota. Not only could South Dakota reap the economic benefits of the program through taxes, but legal marijuana across the border poses enforcement and regulatory challenges, Winkler said.
“If people are willing to drive to Wisconsin in order to buy fireworks, they’re sure as heck going to drive to South Dakota to get cannabis,” Winkler said.
Lawmakers on Monday also said cannabis legalizations would be a step toward racial equity, with marijuana laws currently being enforced unequally across races. They said that roughly 5% of Minnesotans are Black, yet represent 30% of cannabis arrests in the state.
While Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has signaled that he would sign a recreational legalization bill into law, the fate of such a measure remains uncertain in the state’s Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a Monday statement that he “would not consider legalizing recreational marijuana as a Minnesota priority.”
He said he is “open” to broadening the state’s existing medical marijuana program and having “a conversation” on drug sentencing, but he fears the “unintended consequences” of across-the-board legalization.
“Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences,” he said.