Legalized pot in Minnesota goes up in smoke

A bill legalizing recreational marijuana in Minnesota failed Monday when Senate Republicans blocked it, likely ending its chances for the year.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-3 to defeat the measure. All six Republicans on the committee opposed it, siding with law enforcement officials and a grieving mother over Minnesotans who say they use marijuana to relax and for treatment of chronic pain.

“I cannot fathom how this is a good idea for Minnesota,” said Mike Goldstein, the police chief in Plymouth, who was one of three police officials to speak against the legislation Monday. “There will be two undisputed beneficiaries: Big Marijuana, and those who want to get high.”

The bill, from state Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, would allow anyone 21 years or older to buy marijuana in the state. The bill sets up a framework for licensing growing operations and lets people grow a small number of plants in their homes.

Minnesota already allows marijuana use for some medical purposes, but activists have said it’s too restrictive and costly.

Monday’s committee hearing, which lasted more than two hours, took several unusual turns.

Marcus Harcus, the leader of the Committee for a Full Legalization, told senators that he had smoked “high-grade, high-potency cannabis” in the morning before coming to the state Capitol.

“Not only am I still alive, but I am thriving partially as a result of it,” said Harcus, of Minneapolis. “The most dangerous thing about cannabis is getting caught with it by the police, because you can lose your freedom, you can lose your job, you can lose your housing, you can lose your children and worse.”

Then, the two lead authors of the Senate bill, Franzen and Republican state Sen. Scott Jensen of Chaska, made contrasting comments while testifying about the effect legalized marijuana would have on state tax revenue. 

“Rarely as a Legislature do we have the ability to have a win-win scenario -- to tax a product that consumers agree should be taxed, and to regulate it to make it safer for consumers,” Franzen said.

Minutes later, Jensen said that “nowhere along the line has the issue been, ‘Maybe we can acquire some tax dollars.’” Jensen later said he would vote against his own bill, and that his main concern was starting the conversation about legalizing marijuana.

The legislation would allow many people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes to get their records wiped clean.

Sandy Melville, of Rochester, told lawmakers that her son died in 2010 after being hit by a driver who had alcohol, THC and cocaine in his system at the time of the crash.

“Parents are not supposed to outlive their kids,” Melville said, becoming emotional in front of the committee. She asked lawmakers not to “compromise the safety of Minnesotans” by passing the bill.

The same legislation has been introduced in the House but has not gotten a committee hearing. Democratic leaders have said recreational marijuana is not a top priority in their chamber.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has said he opposes the bill.