Republicans in the Minnesota Senate voted down a measure Monday to legalize marijuana for recreational use, abruptly ending debate on the subject — for now.
State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who gave the bill a hearing as chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said after the 6-3 vote that testimony from law enforcement, health experts and former Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger persuaded him that legalization is a bad idea.
Republicans also killed a last-ditch effort to create a task force to further study the issue, evidence that Senate Republicans were eager to dispense with the issue for the year.
The vote ends the marijuana debate in Minnesota for now as a growing number of states are approving recreational use or are considering measures to do so. So far, 10 states have approved recreational cannabis, including Michigan. Similar proposals are under consideration in New York, Connecticut and Illinois and a handful of other states.
Sen. Melisa Franzen, D-Edina, the sponsor of the measure, conceded defeat. “We don’t have a bill to move, so I think the debate is shut down in the Senate,” she said. She noted that Gov. Tim Walz could convene a task force of his own.
Even the Republican cosponsor of the measure, Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, a physician, said he could not support legalization but wanted a wider discussion about the idea and other forms of decriminalization.
Republican opponents were especially concerned about impaired driving and the message that legalization would send to Minnesota children.
Advocates of wider legalization comprised a diverse bunch.
An emergency room doctor said the problems he sees every day are related to alcohol and tobacco, not cannabis.
Marcus Harcus said he consumed marijuana Monday morning — like most days — to help him get through the day. “You don’t have to be pro-cannabis to be opposed to its failed prohibition,” said Harcus, the executive director of a group called Campaign for Full Legalization.
Ben Feist, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said marijuana criminalization has disproportionately affected young black men, citing a study that found they are eight times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than whites, despite roughly similar rates of use.
Franzen said her bill would allow the state to properly regulate — and tax — a drug that is in widespread use, to ensure its safety and direct the proceeds for needed public health research.
Andy Bohlen, chief of the Faribault Police Department and representing the Minnesota Chiefs of Police, said lawmakers should not be fooled by the promise of money.
“Tax revenue will pale in comparison to the cost of the effects of new users,” he said. “The Legislature has worked hard to combat Big Tobacco over the last decade. And I wonder if we are poised to combat ‘Big Marijuana’ 10 or 20 years from now when we realize what this social experiment has cost us.”
Ken Winters, a scientist with the Oregon Research Institute, cited public health research and told the committee, “We have enough problems with our two legal drugs,” referring to tobacco and alcohol. “We do not need another legal intoxicant in Minnesota.”
Minnesota continues to allow the use of marijuana for certain medical conditions such as cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.
Several marijuana proposals remain under consideration in the House, including the creation of a task force, similar to what Franzen proposed, and a constitutional amendment to let voters decide the fate of legalizing recreational cannabis use.
Despite the legislative defeat in the Senate, legalization advocates believe they have momentum.
Just two years ago, proposals from Democratic legislators to legalize cannabis didn’t gain much traction.
But after a sweeping Democratic victory in 2018 including the election of pro-legalization Walz, advocates of ending the prohibition on marijuana are newly hopeful that Minnesota will follow the path of the entire West Coast, Colorado, Michigan and a new group of New England states that have already legalized.
Walz said Monday he remains a supporter of wider legalization. “I appreciate that we’re having the conversation on the recreational cannabis. I think it makes sense,” he said. “I think Minnesota can get this right. I think we can address the concerns and at the same time [recognize] that prohibition has failed.”