Drug Legalization

Hip Minnesota Legislators Are Calling Their Pot Legalization Bill HF 420

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Lawmakers in Minnesota have proposed legislation that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. And they're making sure to be hip about it.

The legalization bill introduced in the state's House by Rep. Mike Freiberg (D–45B) and co-sponsored by 15 other representatives is aptly named House File 420. Its companion measure in the state Senate is SF 619, co-sponsored by Sens. Melissa Franzen (D–49), Ann Rest (D–45), and Scott Jensen (R–47).

Medical marijuana has been legal in the state for more than three years. And during his gubernatorial campaign last year, Governor Tim Walz (D) said outright that he supports "legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use." In December, Marijuana Moment's Tom Angell wrote for Forbes that Minnesota is "on the list of states to watch to end prohibition in 2019."

"At a certain point, it will become inevitable here in Minnesota," said Freiberg at a press conference yesterday, according to WCCO. "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."

Freiberg's bill would certainly do the former. The legislation allows adults over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce of weed, though they would not be able to consume it in public. The state's commissioner of health would have general regulatory powers over weed retailers. The commissioner, who would also be in charge of setting up a council of health experts to "to analyze and evaluate the social and economic impacts," would have to allow legal marijuana sales by January 1, 2022. Local governments, meanwhile, would have the power to regulate "cannabis cultivation or the consumption of cannabis or cannabis products" in their respective jurisdictions.

Moreover, the bill would expunge certain marijuana-related crimes committed prior to August 1, 2019. It would also set up a system of taxation for retail sales of marijuana.

The measure does not say how much revenue legalization might generate for the state. But according to the Marijuana Policy Project, it could raise between $200 million and $300 million annually. "It is time for Minnesota to recognize that, like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, its prohibition of marijuana does not work," Jason Tarasek, Minnesota political director for the Marijuana Policy Project and co-founder of Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, said in a statement. "By legalizing marijuana and carefully regulating its sale, we can keep it out of the hands of teens without needlessly arresting responsible adult consumers. This would allow law enforcement to spend more time addressing serious crimes, while also creating a significant new revenue stream for our state."

It is worth noting that heavy taxes and regulations can do significant harm to the marijuana industry. Take California: Retail weed sales are permitted in just 89 of the state's 482 cities, as Reason's Jacob Sullum pointed out earlier this month. And even if they can get approval from the state and local governments, marijuana businesses must deal with various taxes on their product, which can raise the retail price by up to 40 percent. Black market dealers, of course, don't have to contend with any of this.

The result? Though Callifornia officials thought "there would be as many as 6,000 cannabis shops licensed in the first few years" of recreational legalization, the Los Angeles Times reported in December, "the state Bureau of Cannabis Control has issued just 547 temporary and annual licenses to marijuana retail stores and dispensaries." Legal cannabis sales in California actually fell about $500 million from 2017, when only medical marijuana usage was permitted, to 2018, when recreational weed became legal, according to The New York Times.

That said, legalization would still be a positive development in Minnesota. "What we tried to do is have all the buckets or areas that this issue touches on … from schools, public health, public safety, to health care, everything, and try to have a comprehensive, holistic approach of what this would look like and not take it piecemeal," said Franzen, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

One particularly noteworthy supporter of the legislation is Jensen, a medical doctor who believes medical marijuana can help people reduce their dependence on opioid painkillers. "Three months ago I couldn't have envisioned myself standing at this podium speaking on marijuana issue," he said the press conference, according to KSTP. Jensen still isn't convinced that recreational marijuana is beneficial. But his constituents, he said, convinced him to take action. "They've said 'Doc, with your scientific background, your awareness of what's going on in the field, you need to do this,'" Jensen said.

Whether the bill will actually pass is whole other question. The Twin Cities Pioneer Press notes that two other marijuana bills have already been introduced, both of which would allow voters to decide on legalization next year. As for the latest measure, it has a good chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled state House. But Republicans hold a two-seat majority in the state Senate, and Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has already come out against it.

"Legalizing recreational marijuana is a controversial issue to say the least and not something I would consider a priority issue," Gazelka said in a statement. "Considering that it's linked to mental health problems, driving accidents, and impaired teen brain development, I don't think it has a chance to pass the Senate this year."

He's not exactly telling the whole story. The nature of the relationship between marijuana use and mental health is still very unclear, as Sullum explained on January 7. Similarly, a Reason Foundation policy brief from September found that "numerous studies demonstrate conflicting evidence on the relationship between cannabis legalization and auto accidents, though many are riddled with data and methodological issues."

Finally, there is some evidence that marijuana use can be harmful to teenagers' brains. However, teens don't necessarily smoke more pot when it's legal for recreational use. A 2016 study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), for example, showed that the share of 12- to 17-year-olds who reported having used marijuana in the past month actually fell in the years following legalization in Colorado.

If Minnesota does legalize recreational marijuana, it will be the 11th state in the nation to do so. According to poll conducted by KTSP in October, 56 percent of respondents support legalization, while 32 percent oppose it.