‘It will become inevitable:' Minnesota lawmakers push weed legalization by 2022

Minnesota would legalize recreational marijuana by 2022 and wipe away the criminal records of some people under a bill put forward at the state Capitol on Monday.

The measure would set up a licensing system so businesses could grow and sell marijuana, while people could grow a limited number of plants for their personal use. Several Democrats and one Republican lawmaker have signed onto the push, while top Republicans slammed the door to passage this year.

Supporters said lawmakers need to get in front of the curve as legalization efforts happen around the country. Ten states have legalized recreational marijuana, though the bill introduced Monday would make Minnesota just the second state where Minnesota lawmakers and governor – not voters – would have the final say.

“At a certain point, it will become inevitable here in Minnesota,” said state Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley. “We have two options in front of us. One is to attempt to get in front of this issue and put strong public health protections in place. And the other is to wait and let it come to us.”

Republican state Sen. Scott Jensen, a medical doctor, endorsed the bill and said many of his constituents in conservative Carver County want lawmakers to discuss the issue. But the leader of the Senate GOP caucus opposes legalization and told reporters that the measure would not pass this year.

“As we look at the facts and the state of Minnesota looks at the facts, I think they’ll probably come to the same place I did, where it’s maybe not a wise step to take,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa.

Gazelka said he feared that legalized marijuana would increase homelessness and mental health problems. He said it was “counterproductive” to consider legalizing recreational marijuana while lawmakers decide whether to crack down on opioid use.

But Jensen took the opposite argument, saying that he’s had patients who have ended their opioid painkiller use by switching to medical marijuana.

Minnesota legalized marijuana for medical uses six years ago, and the list of ailments approved for a marijuana prescription has since grown to 20, Jensen said.

“If someone comes to me and says, ‘Doc, is recreational marijuana good for me?’ I would say, ‘No.’ There’s no study that says it’s good for you,” he said. “If there’s a medical condition we’re treating, it may well provide advanced health.”

The bill would make it a misdemeanor to drive a car while under the influence of marijuana. It would be illegal to possess more than one ounce of pot under the legislation.

A key point for supporters has been the increased tax revenue from legalization, but state Sen. Melisa Franzen said her bill intentionally leaves the dollar amounts blank to further the conversation. The measure does direct state agencies to set up a fee structure for growers and sellers.

“Many have asked me why I’m carrying this bill. And I answer by saying, it makes sense and the time has come to have this important conversation,” said Franzen, DFL-Edina.

The measure keeps protections for employers who drug test their workers for marijuana. And businesses and landlords would be able to prohibit smoking on their premises, she said.

Gazelka said he would not block the bill from receiving an informational meeting or full committee hearing, though no such hearings have been scheduled in either the House or Senate.

Sen. Scott Newman, chairman of the Senate Transportation committee, said he was worried that recreational marijuana would create more distracted drivers and car crashes.

“When law enforcement in the state of Minnesota comes out in favor of recreational marijuana and having people under the influence of it driving on our public roads, then I’ll consider it,” he said.