A top Minnesota lawmaker says he will again introduce a bill to legalize marijuana in the new session. And if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the idea, he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) told WCCO-TV that public support “is growing for legalizing and expunging criminal records for cannabis,” and so he will sponsor legislation to accomplish those goals.
“We want to create a safe, regulated marketplace where people can buy cannabis, know what they’re getting, where law enforcement knows where cannabis is coming into the community,” he said, adding that there are “obviously big racial biases in the criminal justice system, very different arrest rates, very different incarceration rates depending on your race.”
“The big hurdle is not really trying to convince people that cannabis is good. Nobody is trying to say that,” he said. “What we’re saying is, the current system fails every test of a good public response to a drug that has some adverse effects and has some positive benefits.”
But legalization will be a tough sell in the GOP Senate, which has historically resisted cannabis reform. The majority leader said the chamber’s leadership represents “the number one obstacle” to legalizing marijuana.
That said, Winkler’s backup plan is to try to convince Republicans to place the issue before voters if they aren’t willing to pass a legalization bill outright.
“I think if they would agree that we could put this on the ballot in 2022, I think it would pass overwhelmingly,” he said.
Red states across the country have acknowledged that prohibition has not worked. I am going to keep pushing for legalization with expungement until we get it done in Minnesota too. #mnleg https://t.co/ifTuFln2DY
— Ryan Winkler (@_RyanWinkler) January 5, 2021
Advocates agreed that a referendum would be approved by voters.
“A growing majority of Minnesotans support the legalization of adult-use cannabis and view it as a non-partisan public policy issue that our surrounding states, both red and blue, have already resolved by putting it to their voters,” Leili Fatehi, campaign manager for Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, told Marijuana Moment. “If the Minnesota Senate GOP won’t act on behalf of the people and pass legalization by statute, they should let the people act on their own behalf and put legalization on the ballot in 2022.”
A Senate spokesperson tempered expectations and told the local TV outlet that, given the ideologically “divided” nature of the legislature, they don’t expect that “recreational marijuana will have a different outcome than last legislative session” in which it didn’t advance.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
Meanwhile, Winkler’s new comments come weeks after the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
The majority leader introduced a bill last year to legalize marijuana for adult use in Minnesota and described it as the “best” in the country in part because it would have prioritized social equity in the industry. But it did not move in the legislature.
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Gov. Tim Walz (D), who backs legalization, said in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler says he will be pushing for hearings and continue to solicit feedback on how to improve the legislation in the new session, which started on Tuesday.
“We can do it right and it’s time for us to get moving,” he said.
Another factor that might add pressure on lawmakers to enact the reform is the November vote in neighboring South Dakota to legalize adult-use cannabis.
Also next door, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) is pushing lawmakers to enact marijuana reform and recently said that he is considering putting legalization in his upcoming budget request.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.