The debate over legalizing marijuana for recreational use in Minnesota was reignited on Monday.
House Democrats stated their plans for legalization, which included expunging the records of most minor cannabis convictions. They framed the issue as one that is necessary to close the gap on racial disparities within the legal system.
According to the Associated Press, 15 states plus Washington, D.C., have already legalized recreational marijuana for adults. The issue has found new life in Minnesota after South Dakota, a state that has traditionally been among the most conservative in the nation, passed a measure in November to legalize marijuana.
“The issue of legalizing cannabis, creating a fair, regulated marketplace, addressing the deep inequities in our criminal justice system, is a mainstream, bipartisan, broadly supported issue,” said Democratic House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley.
The issue is likely to gain wide support in the Democrat-controlled House, and Governor Tim Walz has said he is in favor of legalization, but getting any legislation through both chambers of Congress is a long shot.
The measure is not likely to gain broad support in the Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said in a statement on Monday that he doesn’t believe now is the time to even discuss the issue.
“We are focused on the Minnesota priorities that balance the budget without raising taxes, safely reopen schools and businesses to recover our economy and support families,” he said. “I would not consider legalizing recreational marijuana as a Minnesota priority.”
Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen said he is in agreement with the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association’s stance that recreational marijuana should not be legalized. He said incidents of impaired driving and traffic fatalities have “gone through the roof” in states such as Colorado, where marijuana has now been legal since January 2014.
No matter what, however, he said law enforcement needed to be part of the conversation on any legislation involving drug use.
“We need to be at the table when those discussions are happening,” Larsen said.
He said legalization for recreational use would create several concerns for law enforcement throughout the state; one of the biggest among them being impaired driving.
Law enforcement is able to conduct field sobriety tests when drug use is suspected, however, there is no way to get immediate results on something such as a breath test like what is given when a driver is believed to have been drinking. Those who appear to be on drugs while behind the wheel are arrested and brought to the station for a blood or urine test, so legalization would likely result in more drivers being brought in for testing.
It could also change the way K9 officers are trained, as marijuana is one of the drugs they are taught to indicate.
Other problems Larsen said he has heard about from colleagues in states that have legalized marijuana are THC poisoning among children and pets who get into edibles, along with its prevalence in schools.
“Another thing to remember is that marijuana, today, is way more potent than it was 60 years ago,” Larsen said. “Our belief is that it is a gateway drug; that it leads to use of meth, heroin and other drugs. Our task force hears about that on a daily basis.”
He added that previous legislation has already made it so charges for the sale or possession of marijuana require a large quantity. It takes 25 kilos, or 55 pounds, of marijuana to get a first degree charge for selling against someone with no prior convictions, and 50 kilos, or 111 pounds, for possession.
“People that are breaking the laws as they are now are carrying a lot of weight,” he said.
He said, as the state looks into the issue, it’s important for lawmakers to take into account more than just potential tax and economic benefits. He said the societal and health costs are not always worth the financial gains, which he believes are often short-term, anyway.
“They see dollar signs in the beginning,” Larsen said. “But once you factor in some of the health costs and some of the other problems that can be created, overall, you’re not really gaining anything.”
In the end, he said there is no need to rush into this kind of major legislation without doing all the proper research and seeing the effects legalization is having on other states.
“The biggest thing is, we need to be at the table,” Larsen said. “I’m against recreational, but I’m open — and I think a lot of people in law enforcement are open — to having a discussion about the expansion of medicinal use. It just doesn’t make sense to rush into it.”