Capitol Watch – the marijuana distraction

Every year at the legislature, at least one issue pops up that attracts the attention of members, the public and the press but ultimately has no chance of becoming law. The issue commands a disproportionate amount of energy and attention and distracts from the important must-do work of the session, in this case the state budget.

For 2021, the big distraction issue is legalization of marijuana.

DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler held a big press conference this week putting his powerful leadership office behind a bill to legalize “adult-use cannabis” for people over age 21. The bill establishes a State Cannabis Management Board charged with managing and regulating a new cannabis market.

Making his case for the bill, Winkler said: “the failed criminalization of cannabis has resulted in a legacy of racial injustice that can no longer go unaddressed.” He also warned that Minnesota will soon be left behind as surrounding states work to pass their own marijuana legalization bills (South Dakota just approved legalization in a 2020 statewide referendum).

The issue has bipartisan support in the House with Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo supporting the bill saying: “Members of all political parties should work together towards implementing a better regulatory model to address the expensive, inefficient, and unfair prohibition on marijuana. Contrary to what some will say, this is not a partisan issue. Many Republicans are interested in reforming these expensive laws.”

Both Winkler and Garofalo referenced the underlying criminal justice issue of marijuana, making this discussion more than the pros and cons of smoking pot.

The issue does not have the support of the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate, however. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka immediately threw cold water on the proposal saying he would rather focus on the state budget.

“I would not consider legalizing recreational marijuana as a Minnesota priority,” said Gazelka. “Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. We’re just starting to learn about legalization’s adverse effects in other states like Colorado and Washington. There is no reason to rush this in Minnesota without learning more.”

In order for any cannabis bill to succeed in the Senate, it will have to get past the strong opposition of Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria. Ingebrigtsen approaches the issue from his experience in law enforcement as a former sheriff. The normally genial Senator becomes very passionate over this issue and so far has been able to persuade his colleagues the public safety risks outweigh the benefits of legalization.  

Myth or fact: Pot candidates help Republicans
One political wrinkle to the topic is the accusation that Republicans want to keep cannabis legalization unresolved so that marijuana parties continue to field spoiler candidates in legislative races who pull support from Democratic voters. This theory falls apart when studying the election results of 2020. In several races with marijuana candidates on the ballot, it appears they took more votes from Republicans than Democrats.

Exhibit A: the results in Senate District 27:

  • Trump and the combined State House candidates faced no opposition from marijuana candidates and set the bar for Republican votes at 22,758 and 23,323 respectively.
  • In the US Senate race, Republican Jason Lewis received 3012 fewer votes than Trump while his Democratic opponent Tina Smith only lost 511 votes to the top of her ticket. The marijuana candidate received 2752 votes.
  • In the US House race, Republican Jim Hagedorn received 2943 fewer votes than Trump while his Democratic opponent Dan Feehan actually outpolled Biden by 635 votes. The marijuana candidate received 2596 votes.
  • In the State Senate race, Republican Gene Dornink received 2999 fewer votes than Trump while his Democratic opponent Dan Sparks outpolled Biden by 426 votes. The marijuana candidate received 2699 votes. 

The uneven drop-off from the best performing candidates in this district shows that Republican voters (for Trump and State House) chose the marijuana candidates at much higher levels than Democratic voters.

Senate District 27 was not the only place where the marijuana candidate hurt the Republicans (see SD 14), but a complete analysis of all races with marijuana candidates will show mixed results. All of this serves to bust the myth (believed by Democrats and Republicans) that the marijuana candidate automatically siphons votes away from the Republican candidate.

Legalizing cannabis is a sexy issue that is easy to understand for the press and public. For these reasons, it will continue to garner an inordinate amount of energy and attention, taking time and effort away from the main job of the 2021 legislature: passing a two-year state budget.

This piece originally appeared in our Capitol Watch newsletter. Click here to receive the weekly Capitol Watch newsletter.