Pot activists light up Minnesota ballot

  • Article by: PATRICK CONDON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 21, 2014 - 5:40 PM
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The November ballot will have a handful of candidates who hope to legalize recreational marijuana in Minnesota.

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In November, in a number of high-profile political races, voters will be able to choose between a Democrat, a Republican and a bunch of candidates who want to legalize marijuana for everyone.

Take the contest for governor. Don’t expect Gov. Mark Dayton, or any of his potential Republican opponents, to back a law that would make Minnesota like Colorado or Washington, the two states where citizens in 2012 voted to decriminalize pot. It’s still the rare prominent Democrat or Republican politician who will get behind a move like that, despite the growing number of states including Minnesota that now have medical marijuana laws.

But glance elsewhere around the gubernatorial ballot, and every other option is legal marijuana-friendly. Hannah Nicollet of the Independence Party supports legal pot, a stance recently incorporated into the official platform of Minnesota’s third major party. Libertarian candidate Chris Holbrook is also on board, and it’s probably not surprising that Chris Wright of the “Grassroots — Legalize Cannabis” (as it will appear on the ballot) party is a believer.

“I’m making a run this time because I really feel like marijuana seems to be the big topic this year,” said Wright, a computer repair shop owner from Edina who was also the Grassroots Party candidate for governor in 1998 and 2010.

The state attorney general race has even more marijuana flavor, if you look beyond the DFL and GOP choices. The IP’s Brandan Borgos is a Minneapolis attorney who once served as board chairman of Minnesota NORML, a pro-marijuana activist group. The Grassroots and the Libertarians are fielding pot-friendly candidates, and the Green Party candidate Andy Dawkins — a former Democrat — backs it too.

Except for those from the Independence Party, the other cannabis candidates all represent minor parties under the state’s definition. Wright got less than 1 percent of the vote both times he ran for governor. Libertarian and Green candidates rarely surpass a few percentage points, either. To qualify for major-party status, Minnesota requires that at least one statewide candidate from the party get more than 5 percent of the total vote in the most recent election.

But many legalization activists say that even if a pro-pot candidate finds it hard to win, having more candidates talking about the issue helps make mainstream voters more comfortable with it. Polls nationwide have shown support for legal pot inching up, particularly after the votes in Colorado and Washington.

“Marijuana policy is changing very rapidly, and attention to it is very much at the forefront right now,” Borgos said. “As far as the minor party candidates, I think they see the same thing I do: the opportunity to change peoples’ minds.”

Unlike Colorado and Washington, Minnesota has no initiative and referendum process that would allow citizens to force the issue with a statewide vote. Marijuana legalization would have to start in the Legislature, still a remote prospect in the face of opposition from law enforcement and other politically powerful interests.

Minnesota’s Grassroots Party was formed in the early ’80s, at a time when former President Ronald Reagan was starting up what came to be known as the “War on Drugs.” Activists then and ever since argued that effort, which led to many stricter state drug laws as well, resulted in overcrowded jails and inconsistent enforcement of drug laws that left minorities targeted at a higher rate than whites.

Legalization advocates also contend that regulated and taxed marijuana would be a boon to government treasuries, would help put drug cartels out of business and could even give Minnesota farmers a new cash crop.

“If you have a lot of candidates talking about these different aspects of legalization, you could potentially reach diverse parts of our state and community,” said Oliver Steinberg, a St. Paul retiree and a co-founder of the Grassroots Party who pronounced himself thrilled by the marijuana activism from other political parties.

Steinberg said pro-marijuana activists say they must constantly battle stereotypes about the kind of people who lobby for legal marijuana.

“We’re not a bunch of self-indulgent hedonists who just want to get stoned,” Steinberg said. “We’re talking about serious issues and planetary perspective.”

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