A handful of DFL lawmakers want to legalize marijuana for personal use, a proposal rapidly gaining traction in other parts of the country but still a long shot in a state where current law treats even alcohol with some suspicion.
“This is a conversation starter,” said Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, acknowledging the uphill battle for legalization.
Rep. Tina Liebling of Rochester, who joined Metsa and fellow DFL Reps. Jon Applebaum and Alice Hausman at a news conference Thursday, said Minnesota’s marijuana prohibition is “costly, harmful and antiquated.”
In 2015, Liebling said, Minnesota law enforcement made 6,829 arrests for marijuana, which was 39 percent of all drug arrests.
They said keeping marijuana illegal is not preventing its use, while at the same time wasting police resources, leading users to interact with drug dealers and preventing Minnesotans who get arrested and jailed from finding housing and work later in life.
Among the DFLers’ proposals is a constitutional amendment on the legality of marijuana, which would give Minnesota voters the final say.
But that would require support from at least some Republicans, who hold majorities in the House and Senate. The DFL legislators said they are in discussions with GOP lawmakers, but as of yet no Republicans have signed on.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, a retired police officer and chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, is opposed.
So is DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who said Wednesday he is against the idea: “We’ve got enough drugs, an epidemic of drugs that’s floating through our society right now. And law enforcement’s got to deal with all the consequences of it. Whether it’s more or less harmful than alcohol, the fact is, alcohol causes a great many terrible tragedies around the state, on the roads and the like.”
As of three years ago, Minnesota voters agreed with Dayton, according to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll. It found 63 percent of voters said they opposed legalization for personal use.
The Legislature enacted one of nation’s most tightly regulated medical marijuana programs in 2014.
This restrictive view of marijuana legalization mirrors Minnesota policy stances on other drugs, including high tobacco taxes and restrictions on Sunday alcohol sales.
Nationally, advocates for legalization have some momentum. Voters in four states approved marijuana for personal use in the November election, including California. About one out of five Americans now live in a state where marijuana is legal, including the entire West Coast and a new foothold on the East Coast via Massachusetts and Maine.
“I don’t believe it’s inevitable,” Cornish said. “Eight states to me isn’t any big wave.”
Public opinion appears to be rapidly changing: 60 percent of Americans now favor legalization, according to a 2016 Gallup poll.
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, but former President Barack Obama’s Justice Department took a mostly hands-off approach to legal marijuana in the states. The result has been a boom in marijuana sales and tax collections and a burgeoning industry in cultivation, distribution and tourism. Colorado topped $1 billion in legal marijuana sales in 2016, helping the state rake in more than $150 million in tax revenue just through October of 2016.
It’s unclear how the new administration of President Donald Trump will treat the issue, but on Wednesday he promised a “ruthless” war on drugs. His nominee for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions, is known as a drug prohibition hard-liner.
Cornish said he has studied the issue thoroughly and thinks it’s bad for Minnesota. “I’m extensively involved in drug and DWI courts, and I hear from parents sitting in the benches of those courts watching their kids go through it, and they say, ‘Please don’t legalize marijuana, because that’s how my kid got started.’ ”