By Steve Karnowski, Associated Press
(AP) — Minnesota House Democrats launched a push Monday to legalize recreational marijuana and automatically expunge most minor cannabis convictions, framing the issue as crucial to narrow racial disparities in the legal system.
“The issue of legalizing cannabis, creating a fair, regulated marketplace, addressing the deep inequities in our criminal justice system, is a mainstream, bipartisan, broadly supported issue,” Democratic House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, of Golden Valley, said at a news conference.
Fifteen other states plus the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational marijuana for adults to varying degrees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, They include neighboring South Dakota, a heavily Republican state where it passed with 54% of the vote in November, although it still faces a court challenge there. Minnesota is one of many states that allow medical marijuana, but its restrictions are some of the country’s strictest.
The legislation has the potential to pass this session in the Democratic-controlled Minnesota House, where Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, already has endorsed it. “It’s time. Legalize. Expunge. Regulate,” she tweeted. Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has also expressed support.
But it’s unlikely to get very far in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, reiterated his opposition Monday. He said there’s no reason for Minnesota to rush into it before studying the adverse effects of legalization in other states.
“We are focused on the Minnesota Priorities that balance the budget without raising taxes, safely reopen schools and businesses to recover our economy, and support families,” he said in a statement. “I would not consider legalizing recreational marijuana as a Minnesota priority.”
Winkler urged Senate Republicans to understand that legalization is coming eventually, and that they should help to shape the legislation rather than try to stop it. He also introduced a legalization bill last year before the pandemic crowded out most other issues. He has traveled the state to build support for and develop the legislation, holding forums in 15 cities over the last year and a half.
Rep. Rena Moran, of St. Paul, said the bill fits with a Democratic priority to break down systemic racism.
“Nowhere is the harm of the failed criminal prohibition felt more than for Black, Indigenous and people of color, which continue to experience outrageous disparities regarding enforcement of our current marijuana laws,” she said. “Black Minnesotans are over five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than those who are white. This is one of the worst disparities in the nation, and true even though both groups use it at similar rates.”
Democratic Sen. Melissa Lopez Franzen, of Edina, said the smartest thing Minnesota can do is to create a responsible legal framework for regulating marijuana and educating the public on its effects and responsible use.
At least one GOP lawmaker expressed support, too. Rep. Pat Garofalo, of Farmington, called the status quo indefensible.
“Members of all political parties should work together towards implementing a better regulatory model to address the expensive, inefficient, and unfair prohibition on marijuana,” he said in a statement. “Contrary to what some will say, this is not a partisan issue. Many Republicans are interested in reforming these expensive laws.”
AP Photo Paul Sancya