Did Minnesota’s marijuana legalization parties kill marijuana legalization?

Published on May 6, 2021
photo of a cannabis plant
Minnesota has two minor political parties focused solely on cannabis legalization. Their candidates may have siphoned enough votes in the Nov. 2020 election to turn a blue seat red—and scuttle the chances of a legalization bill in the state Senate. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

A bill to legalize the adult use of cannabis may pass in Minnesota’s House of Representatives next week. That’s the good news.

Here’s the bad news: The bill is not likely to pass in the state Senate. It probably won’t even get a hearing, let alone a full floor vote.

There are several reasons for that, not the least of which is that a faction of pro-cannabis forces shot themselves in the foot during the election last November.

Republican leaders oppose legalization

If the House passes House File 600—the legalization bill—as expected, it moves to the state Senate. If the Senate green-lights it, the legislation then goes to Gov. Tim Walz, who has said he would sign it into law.

The problem is that Republicans, whose party leaders oppose legalization, control the state Senate by the narrowest possible margin: 35 to 34.

GOP members who control Senate leadership will likely prevent the House bill from coming up for a vote.

Minnesota’s “Legal Marijuana Now” party was a true grassroots effort—until Republicans discovered how to use it like a shell corporation. (Screenshot from Legal Marijuana Now party website)

Old fears are driving ‘no’ votes

State Rep. Ryan Winkler, sponsor of the adult-use bill, tells Leafly the pushback from Republicans doesn’t contain any novel reasoning. Winkler says they cite the same old tired arguments: The lack of a clear, easy test for drivers who may be under the influence; the disproven fear that children could be drawn to legal marijuana products; and a feeling that the state should expand its existing medical marijuana program before legalizing for all adults.

Those fears apparently override the Republican leadership’s concern over Minnesota’s massive racial disparities in policing and marijuana arrests, among other issues that legalization and decriminalization would address.  

“To me, as a policymaker, [that] is like the worst of both worlds,” Winkler says. “So you have no government regulation, even a bad one. Like we had with prohibition, you have no regulations whatsoever. That’s your plan.” 

Minnesota marijuana laws

Republicans control the Senate by a single vote

Why, in a largely blue state, do Republicans control the state Senate? Mostly because of a couple of quirks in Minnesota’s political framework. In the North Star State, political parties can become “major” parties—that is, they can lock in a place on statewide ballots with no petitioning required—if they earn 5% of the vote in a statewide race and get at least one vote in every county.

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That’s exactly what two single-issue parties—the Legal Marijuana Now Party, and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party—did in 2018. (Leafly’s David Bienenstock took a deeper dive into those two rival factions prior to the election last year.)

How Republicans are using Minnesota’s marijuana reform parties to siphon votes

Using a minor party to beat a major party

The presence of legalization advocates on the ballot is, on its face, a good thing. But in this past election cycle, the “major-ization” of those two minor legalization parties left the parties exposed to infiltration by phony candidates who ran with the intention of siphoning just enough votes from the Democratic candidate to hand victory to the Republican.

And it may have worked.

A tale of treachery in the 27th District

Tyler Becvar was a vocal Republican supporter who ran for state Senate in Minnesota’s 27th District as a Legal Marijuana Now Party member. According to the Minnesota Reformer, Becvar’s Facebook page was “filled with support for Trump and attacks on Democrats.”

Becvar had never before taken a public stand on legalization. But he was able to garner 2,699 votes—6.68% of the total. That was enough to unseat Sen. Dan Sparks, a Democrat, who lost to Republican challenger Gene Dornink by 1,818 votes.

That single race may have tipped the chamber to the Republicans—and killed the statewide cannabis legalization bill in the Senate.

In one race, the marijuana party played spoiler

A Leafly analysis of five state Senate races clouded by third-party marijuana candidates found that in three races (District 34, District 26, and District 58), the third-party candidate made no difference in the outcome.

In another race, District 14 (St. Cloud), the Democratic incumbent won by a little more than 200 votes. The Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate got 3,127 votes in that race.

There’s no assurance that every one of Tyler Becvar’s 2,699 votes would have swung to the Democrat had Becvar not been on the ballot, of course. As the St. Cloud Times noted, the marijuana legalization parties didn’t draw exclusively from blue-leaning voters. But the fact remains: Republican leaders are blocking legalization in Minnesota, while Democratic leaders are not.

Statewide initiatives not allowed in MN

Many states have bypassed this sort of legislative gridlock through the use of popular statewide initiatives. But Minnesota lacks the mechanism to introduce a statewide ballot initiative, Winkler says. The only way to get such a measure on the ballot in 2022 is by framing it as a constitutional amendment—which itself can only be put on the ballot with a thumbs-up vote from the legislature.

So, as with Winkler’s bill, Republicans in the Senate can kill legalization by simply refusing to bring the measure up for a vote. “It could be a way for Senate Republicans to kind of have it both ways: They can get rid of the issue and not have to vote on it directly,” Winkler says.

Missing a chance to pass a strong bill

If this year’s legalization measure falls short of full passage, Minnesota will have missed out on a thoughtful bill. Winkler says his team has studied the issue carefully.

“Racial inequities in the war on drugs are the number one reason why people supported it,” he says. “So one of the things we did was to really dive deep and understand what we could do in a legalization and regulatory scheme, and with taxation, that would actually make a difference on that. We have very aggressive expungement provisions. We have a lot of grants. We have a marketplace that basically favors very small operators for a period of time, so lower-capital operators could get started and establish themselves.”

“Building racial equity into the bill from the ground up was one thing that we did,” Winkler adds, “because then we’re really enhancing the reason why people supported it the most.”

The state licensing fee would be zero. Minnesota’s cannabis excise taxes would be among the lowest in the nation. Winkler’s bill incorporates research from other states about ways to market cannabis products so they don’t overtly appeal to children. Cannabis tax revenues are allocated to support mental health and substance-abuse issues.

As for racial disparities in law enforcement, the world’s attention has been zeroed in on  Minnesota since George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis in 2020, and the realities remain grim. Black citizens in Minnesota are four to 10 times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis-related crime, Winkler says. “We’re among the worst, if not the worst, disparities on education and income and, health outcomes, and very many other things,” he says.

It looks like a golden opportunity to address much of this will be lost, at least for the coming year, due in part to the results of last November’s election.   

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Dave Howard
Dave Howard
Dave Howard is a national magazine editor and award-winning author. His most recent book is Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents With the World's Most Charming Con Man.
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