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Cannabis push begins anew at state capitol

Supporters and opponents of legalization will make a full-court press at the Minnesota State Capitol, now controlled by cannabis-friendly Democrats.

MINNEAPOLIS — Legal recreational cannabis was like a pipe dream in Minnesota under a politically divided legislature. But that power dynamic will change when the 2023 session begins and Democrats take complete control of the state capitol.

Both supporters of cannabis legalization and opponents of the idea are gearing up for a full-fledged fight on the issue, as legislators decide whether or not to join 21 other states that have already legalized recreational marijuana.

"We now have elected a pro-legalization majority to the Minnesota House and the Minnesota Senate, and we have the support of the governor as well," said Leili Fatehi, who heads the MN is Ready campaign.

The campaign is a coalition of pro-legalization organizations working to move Minnesota from black-market marijuana to a licensed, regulated industry that reflects the state's values.

"We want Minnesota's cannabis industry to be for the benefit of Minnesota growers, manufacturers and retailers and the consumers," Fatehi explained.

The legislation, which will be similar to the one that passed the Minnesota House in 2021, would include expungement for people convicted of certain marijuana-related crimes. Fatehi said the goal is to make sure that persons of color are included in the production and sales of legal cannabis because they were disproportionately affected by the enforcement of marijuana laws. 

While conditions are more favorable in 2023 than they've ever been, it's not a sure thing. Lawmakers must pass a balanced two-year budget and will also be considering other priorities such as paid family leave. DFL leaders don't want to give the impression those issues take a back seat to legalization.

And it's safe to say the opposition hasn't exactly gone up in smoke.

"The fundamental message we're going to communicate to lawmakers is; is this safe?" John Hausladen, who heads the Minnesota Trucking Association, told KARE 11.

The MTA is part of Minnesotans Against Marijuana Legalization, a statewide coalition of groups working to put the brakes on legalization.

"Safety has so many factors. There's highway safety, there's workplace safety, there is the psychological safety and physical safety," Hausladen remarked.

"There is no denying there is growing support for marijuana use. But we believe the average person doesn’t understand all the ramifications, and that’s part of our job this session."

Hausladen said he's worried about truckers sharing the road with cannabis-impaired motorists. He also predicts supply chain issues may worsen because it will be harder to find aspiring truck drivers who can pass federally mandated drug screening.

"People who are not users now start taking recreationally and now they're gonna want to be a truck driver? They're gonna test pot positive. They're not going to be able to drive."

Supporters want all of the tax revenue from legalized pot to go to programs to help address safety issues and help law enforcement keep dangerous cannabis users off the road. They caution against looking to marijuana as a cash cow that will pay for other state services.

Fatehi said some states have blundered by overtaxing legalized pot, making it so expensive that users revert to black market suppliers.

Hausladen said that tests can detect the presence of THC, but there's no roadside test that can show the level of impairment from cannabis the way a breathalyzer test does for alcohol.

He cited a study by the AAA Foundation showing that the number of drivers who tested positive for THC after fatal accidents doubled in Washington state after it was legalized there in 2013. It went from roughly 9% of drivers to 18% after a couple of years.

Legalization supporters say testing of drivers increased in Washington after it was legalized, so they don't view it as a pure apples-to-apples comparison that would prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

"Right now, prohibition it is not preventing people from driving under the influence. That’s already happening," Fatehi asserted.

"The reality is that cannabis is objectively a safer product than alcohol, than nicotine, all products that we trust responsible adults to consume."

The 2023 Session begins on Jan. 3. Lawmakers will have until May 22 to complete their work.

Former House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler got the legalization ball rolling at the state capitol in 2019. At the Minnesota State Fair that year Winkler launched the "Be Heard on Cannabis" tour that eventually encompassed 15 public meetings in 15 cities across the state.

The bill that passed in 2021 had gone through more than a dozen committee hearings before reaching a floor vote. The GOP-controlled Senate never held hearings on the proposal, so incumbent senators will be hearing many of the arguments and expert opinions for the first time.

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