Brooks: Historic vote at Minnesota Legislature shifts the debate on marijuana

·3 min read

The Minnesota House was about to make history Thursday night and Twitter was concerned.

"Help is available," the site advised anyone searching for any combination of the words "Minnesota" and "marijuana" on Thursday, as state lawmakers prepared to vote to legalize cannabis.

"If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, you are not alone," Twitter continued its warning in English and Spanish, with a link to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, before scrolling on to all the day's news articles and social media chatter about the bill. "Our partner SAMHSA 1-800-662-4357 can help."

Marijuana is legal for adult use in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Minnesotans have been buying medical cannabis at state-sanctioned clinics for almost six years.

Polls show that the majority of Minnesotans support full legalization. Bipartisan majorities in 12 different House committees signed off on the bill before it reached the floor Thursday night.

People have gotten more comfortable with cannabis in recent years. Institutions have not.

"The marijuana bill is up in smoke," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told reporters. "There's zero chance it's going to happen in the Senate."

The House debate was long and loud — if this law passes, one lawmaker speculated, what is to stop teachers from going out on their lunch breaks and getting high and coming back into the classroom absolutely full of marijuana?

Minnesota won't legalize marijuana this year. Minnesota hasn't even legalized wine in grocery stores yet.

But House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, hopes his bill moved that day a little closer. Or maybe will make the current state of Minnesota drug laws a little more intolerable for people who have been willing to tolerate the fact that you are five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana if you're Black in Minnesota than if you're white.

Maybe the two years of debate and compromise over full legalization will help the patients caught up in Minnesota's overregulated, overpriced and unprofitable medical cannabis program. Maybe they finally will be allowed to buy their medicine in raw plant form, rather than the expensive oils and extracts existing state law requires.

The federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 narcotic — a dangerous controlled substance with no useful purpose. That includes hemp, the kind of cannabis that can made into clothes, ropes, snacks — pretty much anything but narcotics.

When the Minnesota Department of Agriculture launched an industrial hemp pilot program, it had to register with the federal government as an importer of dangerous drugs before it could bring hemp seeds into the state. Even though you could smoke an entire field of hemp without getting high. (Not recommended.)

The Minnesota Health Department's Office of Medical Cannabis, meanwhile, had no such federal paperwork. Even though a majority of states have legalized marijuana for medical use, Washington still insists that marijuana has no medical value.

"It just doesn't make sense to treat [marijuana] like a scary product that's going to ruin lives," Winkler said. "It has adverse effects, but we can address those through rational regulation, better than through harmful prohibition."

The public gets it, Win­k­ler said.

"When public perception shifts, policy changes," he said. "The public has enough experience with cannabis to know it is not the Reefer Madness gateway to Cheech and Chong product it was portrayed as for so long."

Maybe marijuana will be legal in Minnesota one of these days.

Maybe one day the Legislature will even legalize wine in grocery stores.

But Twitter does not send you a warning message if you search for "Minnesota wine in grocery stores."

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com 612-673-4008

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@stribrooks

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