Marijuana legalization is underway in the United States. Minnesota cannot avoid this reality and should not hide from the inevitable. Instead, we should recognize the harms potentially caused by criminalizing marijuana (or cannabis), and should work to create nation-leading legislation for legalizing, regulating and taxing cannabis for responsible adult use. We need to get this right. And we need to get going.
The federal government has effectively stopped enforcing federal cannabis law in states whose own laws have changed. Illinois just became the first state whose legislature legalized cannabis; voters in a dozen more states have approved it at the ballot. Products containing cannabis sold in these states arrive in Minnesota every day because of course we do not have our own customs agents at the state line. Recent national polling suggests over 60% of Americans are in support.
The reasons for supporting cannabis legalization for adult use are compelling. Under Minnesota’s highly restricted and expensive medical cannabis program, as many as seven in 10 veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are getting relief from their use of cannabis. But most vets can’t access medical cannabis, and no vets can legally receive it from the VA. As a result, we are making too many veterans criminals for using cannabis to treat their symptoms.
Minnesota is also spending significant law enforcement resources enforcing minor cannabis offenses rather than focusing on more serious crimes. This has resulted in significant racial disparities in our criminal justice system. Whole communities are living with the consequences of jailing minor offenders who can have difficulty re-entering community life, finding a job or caring for family members because of their low-level criminal record. We spend millions of tax dollars on prisons, criminal enforcement and prosecution that could be better spent on treating addiction, providing mental health resources or supporting our youth.
Responsible legalization of adult use cannabis can advance personal health, public safety, racial justice, and personal freedom. But cannabis use can also lead to harms we need to address. Any serious effort to legalize cannabis must also understand the impact on adolescent brain development, road safety and psychological effects in adults to ensure that any risks are known, mitigated, and accounted for in the larger conversation.
Legalizing cannabis also requires us to develop effective manufacturing, distribution and sales regulations, a tax and finance system that works with federal laws, business development rules that will help small businesses and communities hurt by our current policy, agricultural policy for hemp, improved access for medical cannabis and more.
Despite these significant challenges, and after weighing the harm of our current criminal approach to cannabis against the harm from cannabis use, I cannot understand why we should treat cannabis differently from alcohol. We should shift a large scale illegal market into a legal market with regulations, taxes and protections to ensure that only adults who know the risks have access to these products, and that Minnesotans have the freedom to make responsible decisions about cannabis use themselves.
We need to be serious about this issue. In this year’s legislative session, Republicans in the Minnesota Senate blocked a DFL House proposal to create a task force to study legalization. This would have been a sensible way to address the many issues associated with our current cannabis prohibition and legalization for adult use.
As an alternative, in the months ahead, legislators from the House will convene community conversations all over Minnesota to discuss these issues. We will learn from experts, address local concerns, study the experience of other states, and, most important, hear the views of Minnesotans directly. As majority leader of the Minnesota House, I will take the lead in starting this conversation with Minnesotans and intend to introduce legislation in the next legislative session that reflects the public input we hear.
Legalizing cannabis for responsible adult use in a sensible way could offer broad benefits across Minnesota. We need to pursue this policy, and get it right. Your state representatives invite you to join this conversation. If any state can do this right, Minnesota can.
And we can only be successful with your voices in the conversation. I hope you will join us.
Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, is majority leader in the Minnesota House.