Supporters of legalizing medical marijuana in Minnesota have struggled to build political momentum at the Capitol this year, but that isn't stopping advocates of legal recreational use from pushing for more liberal state laws governing the drug.
Several hundred supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana rallied at the Capitol on Wednesday, chanting "Yes We Cannabis" as they push to add Minnesota to a growing nationwide movement that has recently seen the drug decriminalized in Colorado and Washington state . The rally was organized by the Minnesota chapter of NORML, a nationwide group trying to capitalize on that success around the country.
"It's a whole untapped industry," said Randy Quast, executive director of Minnesota NORML and a member of the national organization's board. "The thing is, the trade is going on. Marijuana is easy to get and as potent as ever."
Minnesota NORML now has three paid employees, a network of several thousand volunteers, and in recent months opened field offices in Duluth, Rochester, Brainerd, Bemidj, St. Cloud, New Ulm and Morris. Nathan Ness, the director of organizing, said the group raised about $100,000 last year, with a goal of raising more and eventually making contributions in state legislative campaigns to lawmakers who support full-scale legalization.
It will be an uphill climb. Lawmakers who support medical marijuana are extremely reluctant to back full-scale legalization, fearing it could drag down their own efforts to get access to the drug for adults and children with serious medical conditions.
"Medicinal use and recreational use are two distinct things," said Rep. Dan Schoen, a Democrat from St. Paul Park and a police officer who co-sponsored the medical marijuana bill. "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.'"
Only one state lawmaker, DFL Rep. Rena Moran of St. Paul, spoke at Wednesday's rally. She said she's alarmed by studies showing blacks in Minnesota are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses, and intrigued by the tax revenue that legalizing marijuana would reap for the state.
"We could tax it, we could regulate it, we could have more opportunities to make marijuana safe," Moran said. But even she is not ready to sponsor a bill for full-scale legalization.
"It's not an easy subject," Moran said. "But I would like us to get to a place where the Legislature could start having the conversation."