Ryan Winkler has been Minnesota’s House Majority Leader since 2019 and since that time has been a proponent of legalizing recreational marijuana in Minnesota. Winkler did not seek re-election this year, instead launching an unsuccessful bid for Hennepin County Attorney. But in an opinion piece in this past weekend’s Star Tribune, Winkler talked about how Minnesota is well-positioned to legalize cannabis.
Now that the Democrats control both the House and Senate, along with Democratic Governor Tim Walz, there has been speculation that legalizing a form of recreational marijuana will be a top priority for the next session which starts in January. That has been confirmed by both the governor and other DFL lawmakers.
The DFL controlled House did pass a bill last May that never got a hearing in what was then the Republican controlled Senate. With that roadblock removed, it appears as though marijuana legalization could pass quickly.
"This caucus supports adult use cannabis," House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D), said following the November Election. "I believe we will pass that bill."
Governor Walz told the WCCO Morning News that he thinks the time is right to legalize marijuana.
"It just makes sense, prohibition didn't work, we get better regulation, we know what's in these things, it's adult use,” Walz told WCCO.
Last year's legislation that failed to get a hearing in the Senate would make recreational marijuana legal for anyone 21 or older. It would also eliminate cannabis crimes and help to create a program that would launch cannabis businesses.
The question now becomes in what form would new laws around marijuana use take shape?
Winkler, who has been a proponent of legalizing it since 2019, says worries about increased crime are not based on the evidence at hand.
“There really is no sign that violence increases with cannabis legalization based on other states,” Winkler says. “That’s simply not true. There’s a whole list of things people come up with not to legalize, but the fact is cannabis is widely available now. It is widely used now. And using it won’t fundamentally change that.”
In fact, in most studies marijuana legalization could lead to a decline in violent crime such as homicide, robbery and aggravated assault. Winkler says that could be even truer in Minnesota because of the work they have put in with law enforcement.
“I think there’s a lot of caution with law enforcement about what this means for their work,” says Winkler (D), who spoke to Vineeta Sawkar Monday on the WCCO Morning News. “Tell us how we should do this in a way that works best for public safety.”
Winkler argues that eliminating low-level cannabis crimes will also benefit the state, and anyone convicted of low-level cannabis crimes should have those expunged from their records.
One group opposed to this legislation is Minnesotans Against Marijuana Legalization. They say that marijuana legalization for retail sale and recreational use is still a social experiment, one that evidence and research show has been failing in states where it is legalized.
“Legalization causes widespread costs and societal harms, affecting all aspects of our lives- It has been linked to increases in homelessness, increases in government spending, increased public health costs, loss of productivity, increases in crime and violence, loss of potential, workplace safety costs, rising business cost, decreased roadway safety and increases in housing costs,” they say in a statement on their website.
Winkler says they’re being cautious and are confident that anything passed in Minnesota will be done in the best way possible, and that this change is inevitable.
“Our ability to even enforce the prohibition laws we have is way past overdue to change. I don’t really think there’s a choice to move forward, it’s about how we move forward. And that’s how we’re engaging with law enforcement.”
There are challenges with legalizing marijuana, as lawmakers have seen in other states. WCCO Political Analyst Blois Olson says that is the most important part of what lawmakers need to work out during the session.
“I think the question is how it becomes legal. How people are able to have a license to sell, how people are to have a license to grow,” Olson explains. “In other states that this has happened, that’s where the challenges are.”
Olson adds there will be opposition to this legislation but expects it to pass anyway.
Winkler adds that having high taxes and out-of-control regulations on recreational marijuana will create too many problems.
“All you really do is help big, multi-state operators come in and master your system, and figure out the best way to make use of those regulations for their benefit,” Winkler says. “You really hurt small businesses, you hurt businesses lead by communities of color and individuals hurt by the prohibition of cannabis. So you want to make sure the regulations are not too restrictive or too arbitrary, and in fact can help migrate a legal marketplace to a safe, regulated marketplace.”
Minnesota has already legalized THC edibles, and THC beverages. THC is the the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects. Minnesotans can buy food and beverages that contain up to 5 milligrams of THC per serving, with a limit of 50 milligrams per package.
So far, 21 states along with Washington D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana in some form. It is still illegal at the Federal level. That creates another challenge says Olson.
“There’s also some financial challenges, because it’s still illegal federally, and some financial institutions refuse to bank marijuana producers and distributors,” Olson says.
However, President Joe Biden has announced that he plans to pardon all federal arrests for simple marijuana possession nationwide.
The move fulfills one of his 2020 campaign promises aimed at loosening federal restrictions on a substance that has already been legalized in many of the 50 states.
"No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana," Biden wrote. "Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit."