ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 9) - It's one of the biggest questions facing the Minnesota Legislature when Democrats take control in the new year: will lawmakers legalize recreational marijuana?
This week, two top lawmakers said they think it'll happen over the next two years. The DFL-controlled House has already passed a bill once, in 2021, though the Senate was in Republican hands at the time, and the GOP didn't advance the measure. Democrats regained the Senate in November's election.
"This isn’t something I would see in the near term," said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, on a legislative panel. "It may well happen in the next two-year period. But we have a lot of things we’re going to be focusing on early and fast."
Hortman, who voted for the 2021 legalization effort, said a marijuana bill would need to go through almost every House and Senate committee before coming up for floor votes.
State Sen. Nick Frentz, an assistant DFL leader, said the Senate would hold hearings in the new year. But he acknowledged differences within his caucus, which holds a 34-33 majority.
"I think it will pass this session. I agree with the speaker, there’s a question of timing," said Frentz, DFL-Mankato. "Our caucus has not had this discussion at any length. I would guess there are some members who have some hesitation."
Frentz said he's always been neutral on marijuana legalization. A personal injury lawyer, he said legislation needs to be written to ensure traffic safety. But the current system of prohibition isn't working, Frentz said.
When FOX 9 initially reported the lawmakers' comments online, activists responded in frustration, accusing the DFL of moving too slowly on the issue. If a bill doesn't pass, some predicted that voters would choose marijuana party candidates at the Democrats' expense in 2024.
But Leili Fatehi, campaign manager for the MN is Ready coalition, said the lawmakers' comments reflect the reality that it'll take hard work to pass a recreational marijuana bill.
"MN is Ready is going to maintain pressure on legislators to begin work on this bill as early as possible," Fatehi said in an interview.
Supporters have several goals, Fatehi said. Among them: creating a statewide standard so no city can opt out, setting up the regulatory system so local- and minority-owned businesses can compete with large out-of-state companies, wiping away the records of past marijuana convictions, and ensuring workplace and roadway safety.
"We think we have enough time to convince anyone with hesitation to become supporters this session," Fatehi said. "We think this is the mandate from voters that they want to see legalization happen. Quite frankly, every day we put off legalization is another day that we’re allowing the absolute public policy failure that is prohibition continue to inflict its harms."
Republicans, who will be in the minorities in both the House and Senate, said they expect Democrats will move ahead with a marijuana bill.
"I do know there is a strong desire to see it done by the DFL," said state Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville. "They’ve got the ability to do it. I would be very surprised if they did not pursue it."
It's unclear whether a bill would garner any Republican support. In the past, a small number of GOP lawmakers have expressed interest in the issue. But concerns remain, said state Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia.
"There are some things that have to get answered," Nash said. "How do you roadside enforcement? If someone’s impaired, currently there is no predictable, reliable and quick test for that."