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Minnesota Democratic lawmakers to push for legal marijuana



ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Some top Minnesota Democratic lawmakers are planning to make a major push in the 2020 legislative session to legalize recreational marijuana, though they acknowledged Tuesday that the bill probably won’t become law this year.

“Legalization is going to happen in Minnesota, and the question is whether it happens this year, next year, or the year after,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said. “The change is coming, and we are preparing for that change by creating legislation that will address all the harms of our existing prohibition of cannabis.”

Winkler, of Golden Valley, and Senate Assistant Minority Leader Jeff Hayden, of Minneapolis, acknowledged at a news conference that they probably won’t be able to overcome strong opposition from the Senate’s Republican majority. Winkler said the bill might not even get a House floor vote, given that it may need to go through up to 23 committees for a full vetting. He said it’s “highly likely” they’ll need more than a year.

Winkler, Hayden and other Democrats have held 15 town halls across the state since September to gather information from experts and citizens. Hayden said he was surprised to see how the crowds were often full of older people, and people who use marijuana medicinally but aren’t served well by the state’s medical marijuana system, which is among the most restrictive in the country.

They plan to introduce the bill early in the session, which opens next Tuesday. Winkler said it should be “the best legalization bill in the country to date,” taking lessons from every state that has legalized recreational marijuana so far.

Winkler said they want to develop a cannabis marketplace that’s legal, taxed and regulated. Their plan is for a Minnesota-grown industry that has safeguards in place to prevent big companies from taking over the market. Their plan will also have ways for “people who have been harmed by the War on Drugs” to participate in the industry legally, he said, as well as financing opportunities.

“People want this to be a Minnesota-based, craft-type industry as far as possible,” Winkler said.

But Jeremiah Gardner, spokesman for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and its network of treatment centers, urged lawmakers to slow down, saying the experiences of other states should give them pause. Problematic use and stoned driving are up, while illicit markets are still thriving and product potency is off the charts, he said.

“We see every day the vulnerable people who are affected most by having substances more affordable and socially acceptable,” Gardner said.

Democratic Gov. Tim Walz supports marijuana legalization.

But GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said last month that the Senate won’t consider legalization this year. Gazekla, of Nisswa, said experts from Colorado testified at a Senate hearing last year “and all of the data was bad. Homelessness rates were up, accident rates were up, mental health problems were up. There was nothing good that would come out of it.” The committee, chaired by Sen. Warren Limmer, of Maple Grove, killed the bill.

“Senator Limmer’s committee has become a graveyard — a place where bills die,” Hayden said.

And if Gazelka wants to keep blocking the discussion, Hayden added, Democrats are “more than happy” to make legalization an election issue.

“Senator Gazelka and Senator Limmer can fold their arms and say ‘No, I don’t want to hear it,’” Winkler said. “But the people of Minnesota will roll over them eventually on issues like this. So they can decide to be speed bumps, or they can decide to be active participants in crafting policy.”

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