Supporters of legalizing the drug are taking their fight into the spotlight, saying medical marijuana has failed to gain traction in state.
Recreational marijuana advocates say that medical marijuana proponents have had a shot at legalization.
Now it’s their turn.
Backers of recreational legalization say they support the medical marijuana bill and tried to let its backers have the spotlight but grew frustrated at the lack of movement.
Minnesota NORML is taking its own push more public, starting with a rally Wednesday in the Capitol rotunda that drew several hundred people who joined in chants of “Yes We Cannabis!”
“We didn’t see the medical marijuana folks having a lot of luck,” said Nathan Ness, an organizing director for the group. Nationally, NORML lobbies across the country for the legalization of marijuana.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, together with the Marijuana Policy Project, helped drive the push for full legalization in Colorado and Washington, and now are spreading those efforts to Minnesota and beyond. Minnesota NORML has been quietly ramping up its activity for months and now has field offices in Duluth, Rochester, Brainerd, Bemidji, St. Cloud, New Ulm and Morris. It has added paid staff and claims a network of several thousand volunteers.
Ness said the group, which raised $100,000 last year, intends to fundraise and donate to House candidates who support full legalization. He said it will create and distribute voter guides spelling out candidates’ support or opposition.
The push for full legalization is coming not just from those who want to enjoy their favorite drug without facing arrest. Some see dollar signs of opportunity for the right entrepreneur.
“It’s a whole untapped industry,” said Randy Quast, a one-time business owner who has made legal pot his mission as executive director of Minnesota NORML. “The thing is, the trade is going on. Marijuana is easy to get and as potent as ever.”
But the efforts of groups like NORML could make the going even tougher for those who support medical marijuana and who have been careful to keep their distance from recreational advocates.
Lawmakers who support medical marijuana are extremely reluctant to back full-scale legalization, fearing it creates the perception that their effort is a Trojan horse for full legalization.
“Medicinal use and recreational use are two distinct things,” said Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, a cosponsor of the medical marijuana bill and a police officer. “Medical marijuana detractors are going to be looking at the full legalization folks to do something radical or out of the norm, so they can point at them and say, ‘See? That’s why we can’t do this.’ ”
The bill to legalize medical marijuana has bipartisan support from lawmakers, but its backers have failed to win over Gov. Mark Dayton. The governor, citing opposition from law enforcement groups and lack of consensus among medical professionals, has suggested instead a state-funded study into a cannabis-based oil that many parents of children with severe epilepsy see as a sort of miracle cure.
Dayton said this week he is trying to heed warnings from the Democratic governor of Colorado, who suggested recently that other states wait and see how legalization plays out in that state before pursuing the same path.
“Why would we want to take another drug, whose effects may be beneficial to some people, but whose potential for harm is far greater to many more people, without giving it all kinds of consideration?” Dayton asked.
Law enforcement groups that have lined up against legalizing medical marijuana in Minnesota could be counted on to push back even harder against any move to loosen state drug laws further.
‘A stupid argument’
“We feel marijuana is dangerous,” said Dave Kolb, police chief in Champlin and co-chairman of the Minnesota Police Chiefs Association. To arguments that it’s no worse than alcohol, Kolb said: “I think to say we have a dangerous substance that’s already legal, so let’s make another dangerous substance legal too, is a stupid argument.”
Even state lawmakers open to legalizing marijuana are taking a cautious approach to the issue.
Only one lawmaker spoke at Wednesday’s rally — DFL Rep. Rena Moran of St. Paul. Moran said she is alarmed by studies that show blacks in Minnesota are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses. She also is intrigued by the potential for tax revenue. Colorado has seen gushers of revenue come in from heavily taxed marijuana products.
“We could tax it, we could regulate it, we could have more opportunities to make marijuana safe,” Moran said. But she stops well short of sponsoring a legalization bill.
“It’s not an easy subject,” Moran said. “But I would like to get us to a place where the Legislature could start having the conversation.”
Minnesota law also makes legalization harder here than in Colorado or Washington. Both of those states legalized the drug through petition drives that put the question directly before voters statewide. Minnesota does not have an initiative and referendum process, meaning legislators would have to take recorded votes to legalize the drug.
Nationally, the momentum to rehabilitate marijuana’s sketchy image is gaining traction. Supporters are trying hard to do away with references to marijuana, preferring the Latin term “cannabis.”
Twenty states already allow medical marijuana. Voters in Alaska and Oregon may get to weigh in on legalization measures in those states later this year.
Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center in southern California, said it’s too soon to tell whether states that legalize marijuana will reap continued economic benefits. Uncertainty about the response of the federal government also clouds the issue, he said, given that possession or sale of marijuana remains a federal crime.
“There’s a lot we still have to learn,” Kilmer said. “But it’s clear that the conversation has moved from dinner parties and dorm rooms to State Capitols and federal hearing rooms.”
Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049