Did Minnesota’s marijuana legalization parties kill marijuana legalization?
A bill to legalize adult cannabis use could be passed in the Minnesota House of Representatives next week. That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news: the bill is unlikely to get passed in the Senate. It probably won’t even get a hearing, let alone a full vote.
There are several reasons for this, not least because a faction of pro-cannabis forces shot themselves in the foot in the elections last November.
Republican leaders oppose legalization
If the House passes House Record 600 – the Legalization Act – as expected, it will go to the Senate. If the Senate gives the go-ahead, the legislation will go to Governor Tim Walz, who said he would legally sign it.
The problem is that Republicans, whose party leaders are against legalization, control the Senate with as narrow a margin as possible: 35 to 34.
GOP members who control the conduct of the Senate are likely to prevent the House bill from going to the vote.
Minnesota’s Legal Marijuana Now party was a real grassroots effort – until Republicans discovered how to use it like a shell company. (Screenshot from the Legal Marijuana Now Party website)
Old fears lead to no votes
Rep. Ryan Winkler, sponsor of the Adult Use Bill, told Leafly that there were no novel reasons behind the Republicans backlash. Winkler says they cite the same old, tired arguments: the lack of a clear, simple test for drivers who may be under the influence; the rebutted fear that children could be attracted to legal marijuana products; and the feeling that the state should expand its existing medical marijuana program before legalizing it for all adults.
These fears appear to outweigh the concerns of the Republican leadership over Minnesota’s massive racial disparity in policing and the arrest of marijuana, including issues that would be addressed through legalization and decriminalization.
“For me as a political decision maker [that] is like the worst of both worlds, ”says Winkler. “So they have no state regulation, not even bad ones. As with the ban, you have no rules. This is your plan. ”
Minnesota Marijuana Laws
Republicans control the Senate with a single vote
Why do Republicans control the Senate in a largely blue state? Mainly because of some quirks in Minnesota’s political framework. In the North Star State, political parties can become “big” parties – that is, they can secure a spot on statewide ballot papers without petitioning – if they get 5% of the vote and at least one vote in each county in a nationwide race.
This is exactly what two single-issue parties – the Legal Marijuana Now Party and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party – did in 2018. (Leafly’s David Beehive took a deeper look at these two rival factions ahead of last year’s elections.)
How Republicans use Minnesota’s marijuana reform parties to pull votes
Using a Small Party to Hit a Big Party
The presence of advocates of legalization on the ballot is, at first glance, a good thing. But this past electoral cycle, the “majorization” of these two small legalizing parties has exposed the parties to infiltration by false candidates who were running with the intention of pulling just enough votes from the Democratic candidate to give the Republican victory.
And it could have worked.
A story of treason in the 27th district
Tyler Becvar was a vocal Republican supporter who ran for the Senate of Minnesota’s 27th District as a member of the Legal Marijuana Now Party. According to the Minnesota reformer, Becvar’s Facebook page was “full of support for Trump and attacks on Democrats”.
Becvar had never spoken out publicly about legalization. But it was able to collect 2,699 votes – 6.68% of the total. That was enough to knock Democrat Sen. Dan Sparks off, who lost by 1,818 votes to Republican challenger Gene Dornink.
That single breed may have toppled Republicans – and killed statewide cannabis legalization in the Senate.
In one race, the marijuana party played spoilers
A leafly analysis of five Senate races tarnished by third-party marijuana candidates found that the third-party candidate made no difference in score in three races (District 34, District 26, and District 58).
In another race, District 14 (St. Cloud), the Democratic incumbent won with just over 200 votes. The candidate for the Legal Marijuana Now Party received 3,127 votes in this race.
There is no guarantee that any of Tyler Becvar’s 2,699 votes would have gone to the Democrats if Becvar had not voted. As the St. Cloud Times noted, the marijuana legalization parties did not draw solely from blue-minded voters. But the fact remains: Republican leaders block legalization in Minnesota, Democratic leaders don’t.
Nationwide initiatives in MN not allowed
Many states have circumvented this type of legislative deadlock through the use of popular nationwide initiatives. But Minnesota lacks the mechanism to introduce a nationwide election initiative, says Winkler. The only way to get such a measure on the ballot in 2022 is to spell it out as a constitutional amendment – which can only be put on the ballot even with a thumbs-up vote from the legislature.
As with Winkler’s law, Senate Republicans can kill legalization by simply refusing to put the measure to the vote. “It could be a way for Senate Republicans to do both: they can get rid of the problem and not have to vote on it directly,” says Winkler.
Missing a chance to pass a strong bill
If this year’s legalization effort isn’t fully completed, Minnesota has missed a thoughtful bill. Winkler says his team carefully investigated the problem.
“Racial inequalities in the war on drugs are the main reason people supported them,” he says. “One of the things we did was go really deep and understand what we can do in a legalization and regulation system, and with taxation that would actually make a difference. We have very aggressive extinction policies. We have a lot of scholarships. We have a marketplace that basically prioritizes very small operators for a period of time so operators with lower capital can start and establish themselves. “
“Building racial justice into the bill from the ground up was one thing we did,” adds Winkler, “because then we really improve the reason people supported it the most.”
The state license fee would be zero. Minnesota’s cannabis excise taxes would be among the lowest in the nation. Winkler’s bill contains research from other states into ways of marketing cannabis products so that they do not address children openly. Cannabis tax revenue is used to support mental health and substance abuse issues.
As for racial law enforcement, world attention has been drawn to Minnesota since George Floyd was assassinated in Minneapolis in 2020, and the reality remains grim. Minnesota black citizens are four to ten times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis-related crime, Winkler says. “We’re among the worst, if not the worst, differences in education, income, health outcomes, and many other things,” he says.
It looks like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address much of this is going to be lost for at least the coming year, partly due to the results of last November’s election.
Dave Howard is a national magazine editor and award-winning author. His latest book is Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents with the World’s Most Charming Impostor.
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