President Donald Trump has just schooled us high-minded editorialists once again about the political utility of this nation’s long-running culture wars. Last weekend, who wanted to read about health care or tax policy or the threat of nukes in North Korea when Trump was raging over athletes’ posture during the playing of the national anthem?

With Trump’s lesson fresh in mind, I’m here with a prediction about a key issue in next year’s race for governor: Maybe not the dominant campaign topic (I’d still put health care in first place) but close to it will be legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

Ever since Colorado allowed the legal sale of weed five years ago and the Minnesota Legislature said yes to medical marijuana two years later, a full-throated debate over full legalization in this state has seemed to be a question of when, not if.

An answer is emerging: 2018. Five of the six most active DFL candidates to succeed the retiring DFL Gov. Mark Dayton have said they favor legalizing marijuana for more than medical use. Only State Auditor Rebecca Otto says she’s opposed.

Per usual in a culture war skirmish, the Republicans in the race are lining up on the other side. All four of the top announced candidates say they oppose legalizing pot.

My bet: That difference won’t be campaign background noise. It’ll be an everyday talking point, with each side employing it in the belief that it can usefully distract voters from messier matters while inspiring them to go to the polls and smite the culturally clueless opposition.

I base that prediction on observations both ancient and recent. Through the years, Minnesotans have been as prone as other Americans to get revved up and choose up sides over matters like religion, race, reproduction, guns, gender roles, immigrant assimilation and, quite often, intoxicants.

This is, after all, the home state of the father of Prohibition, U.S. Rep. Andrew Volstead of Granite Falls. It’s where in the 19th century, city governments that seemingly had plenty to do building schools, streets and parks fussed most over saloon regulation. New arrivals from southern and Eastern Europe and Catholic Ireland were scorned by the New Englanders and Scandinavians who came earlier in part because the newcomers unabashedly quenched their thirst with strong drink.

Think that all went away when Prohibition was repealed in 1933? Note that Minneapolis voters finally dropped a restaurant liquor-sale restriction from their city charter in 2014. A ban on Sunday liquor sales ended just this year.

Minnesotans have traditionally taken a dim view of marijuana. But this state hasn’t been uniformly anti-pot. In 1976, the Legislature downgraded the criminal status of possession of a small amount of weed to a petty misdemeanor. And in 2014, after heroic lobbying by the families of children suffering from a form of epilepsy that often responds favorably to compounds extracted from cannabis, the Legislature made Minnesota the 22nd state to legalize a form of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Since then, there have been signs of quickening change. Eight states have now legalized the stuff. Gallup reported last year that support for full legalization nationally had reached 60 percent. And at this year’s Minnesota State Fair, the annual unscientific questionnaire offered at the Minnesota House of Representatives booth found a majority — 50.6 percent of 7,122 respondents — favoring legalization for adults age 21 and over.

I’ve hung out at that booth. I can attest that the people who pause long enough to complete its long questionnaire typically aren’t 20-something hipsters.

“A lot of people in our generation realize that the prohibition of marijuana is a failed policy,” agreed DFL gubernatorial candidate and state Rep. Tina Liebling, whose birth date is near mine. “It’s definitely true that a lot of younger people want this changed. But support for legalization is broader than we might think.”

Liebling would know. Among the five DFL candidates for governor who want pot prohibition ended, she’s the one to have introduced a bill to that effect in the Legislature. She’s an attorney from Rochester who says she has seen in her criminal defense work the detrimental impact of the nation’s war on drugs on people’s lives.

“I’m not saying that marijuana is harmless,” Liebling said, who added that she’s not a user herself. “But there are a lot of things in life that are not harmless that we allow to be sold.” Legalization would bring a number of benefits, she said. “People could know what they are buying, where it came from and how potent it is. I believe we could also do a better job of keeping it away from kids.”

That would be an important gain, given research-based warnings about the damage marijuana causes to developing brains. Liebling cited estimates that Minnesotans are already spending a jaw-dropping $700 million a year buying pot on the black market, where there is no age limit on sales.

And where there are no taxes paid. Last year, Colorado collected $200 million in tax revenue on marijuana sales.

Those arguments are strong enough to suggest that — unlike the uproar over NFL kneelers — a debate over marijuana legalization might be a culture-war battle worth having. Liebling and the other DFL candidates who want the legal bar torn down are likely to be cast as hedonists or libertines by their opponents. But those opponents will be bucking the freedom-loving streak in the American culture that helped undo Prohibition 85 years ago. People still don’t like government telling them what they can and cannot privately consume.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.