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Minnesota House casts vote to legalize recreational marijuana for adult use

Senate leaders on Thursday said the measure would go 'up in smoke' in that chamber.

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Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, on Thursday, May 13, 2021, spoke to reporters at the Minnesota Capitol about his proposal to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL —The Minnesota House of Representatives on Thursday, May 13, advanced a proposal to legalize marijuana for adult use, marking the first time in state history that the chamber weighed and passed the proposal.

On a 72-61 bipartisan vote, lawmakers moved the proposal to the GOP-led Senate, where it has little chance of passing into law.

Under the bill, people aged 21 and older could legally buy and use marijuana and those convicted of low-level marijuana convictions would see their records expunged. The proposal has cleared a dozen House committees and is set to pass through the chamber with bipartisan support but it faces a murky path forward in the Senate, where lawmakers have yet to take it up. Gov. Tim Walz has said he supports the bill and would sign it into law if it reached his desk.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said the plan is a step toward ensuring racial equity in the state since marijuana-related convictions tend to disproportionately impact Black Minnesotans, despite consistent use across demographic groups. The proposal would also establish a marketplace in the state for selling and taxing marijuana, with safety measures built in. Funds from marijuana sales would help pay for substance abuse programs.

"Cannabis products are growing in popularity, they are growing in variety, and more and more people — and I bet in your own life — have used cannabis for personal reasons," Winkler said. "It can be done safely and we cannot stand back and hope it doesn’t happen here. The fact of the matter is: legalization is coming and it’s better to get out in front of the issue and address it."

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Winkler and other DFL lawmakers held more than a dozen town hall meetings around the state to take in support and concerns about the plan over the past two years. And they said the state's policies should reflect the changing public opinion on marijuana.

"We heard about how harmful our current cannabis policies are for Minnesotans, especially for our Black, Indigenous and people of color," said Rep. Rena Moran, D-St. Paul. "The racial disparities are absolutely impossible to ignore and the damage caused from unnecessary interaction with the criminal justice system lasts a lifetime."

A handful of Republicans voted with Democrats to advance the proposal and said the existing laws on marijuana hadn't worked and needed to be adjusted.

"The regulatory model that has been in place in the United States since about the 1930s has not worked and will not work and so it's up to us to decide what's going to replace that," Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said.

Opponents said the plan could create unsafe situations on roadways if drivers get behind the wheel while under the influence or in workplace situations if workers show up impaired. And some worried that legalizing marijuana could open a gateway to other more addictive drugs.

"It starts with marijuana and it goes on to other things," Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said. Baker's son died of an opioid overdose. "This is not a joke. This is serious."

And several Republicans raised frustrations about the work the Legislature wasn't doing in its final days as the hours-long debate over cannabis unfolded. They noted that the state budget still wasn't finished and tax conformity bills hadn't been passed.

"The most egregious part is you let all the important work pass you by as you moved this through the Legislature and fumbled the ball more than Adrian Peterson ever did," Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said.

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Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, on Thursday said the measure wouldn't have a shot at passing in his chamber.

"The marijuana bill in the Senate is up in smoke, that's not going to happen," Gazelka said, noting that Senate Republicans were open to discussions about the state's medical cannabis program or lowering penalties for marijuana-related crimes. "Making legalized pot for fun, we just don't think that's a good idea."

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for adult use. And South Dakota voters in November supported a constitutional amendment at the ballot legalizing marijuana for recreational use. That proposal remains ensnared in the courts.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com .

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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