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Minnesota Gov.-elect Tim Walz talks during a news conference at his transition office at the state Capitol in St. Paul on Thursday, Nov. 8. DFLer Walz defeated Republican candidate Jeff Johnson in Tuesday’s election. Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press

Legalize pot? Gov.-elect Tim Walz says Minnesota should

ST. PAUL -- Going green could take on a new meaning in Minnesota if incoming Gov. Tim Walz has something to say about it.

As more states legalize marijuana, Walz says it’s time for Minnesota to follow suit. He’s argued that legalizing pot could bring in a new source of tax revenue if regulated properly, and it could reduce the number of people locked up for drug offenses.

“I just think the time is here and we’re seeing it across the country. Minnesota has always been able to implement these things right,” said Walz, who as a congressman pushed the Department of Veterans Affairs to study medical marijuana for military veterans.

But the newly elected governor can’t legalize it on his own. Any measure to decriminalize the drug must go through the Minnesota Legislature, which will be split between Democrats and Republicans come January.

Advocates for legalization are high on its prospects now that Democrats will control the House and the governor’s office. Critics hope that Republicans, who control the Senate, will fend off such efforts.

“If you’re looking for a sleeper issue, this could be it,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. “It’s not going to be the top priority … but I think … it could be one of those things that kind of sneaks through.”

Minnesota likely won’t be the only state to give the issue a look next year.

Several pro-pot governors will take office across the country, and public support for legalization continues to grow. A Gallup poll released last month found that 66 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana.

Walz enthused, lawmakers reserved

From tax revenue to racial equity, Walz is enthused about the potential benefits of legalizing marijuana.

Taxing recreational marijuana could bring in revenue to fund addiction services and youth education on substance abuse, Walz said.

He also argues that decriminalizing pot could help address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. If Minnesota legalized it, Walz said, nonviolent users should have their crimes expunged.

“I think that’s an important component of this,” he said. “Give people the opportunity to get out, start fresh and realize that society has moved and changed on this issue and we can get it right.”

Lawmakers in the House and Senate say they are willing to discuss the issue. But they have stopped short of saying they support full legalization.

State Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, will become speaker of the House when the Legislature convenes in January. Hortman said marijuana laws will be discussed in the House next year, but “it is too early to say what the path for this issue will look like.”

“Many Minnesotans are asking for changes to marijuana laws, and House DFLers are interested in hearing their concerns,” Hortman said in a statement.

During a recent press briefing, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he does not want to rush into the issue without more information.

“I want to be able to bring in the people from Colorado and give us the results. So we’re going to look at empirical data and take a look at it. My gut is that it’s probably not good for the state, but that’s what we’re going to find out,” Gazelka said.

Growing movement

Recreational pot is legal in 10 states and in Washington, D.C. A total of 33 states, including Minnesota, allow medical marijuana.

Colorado was one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. This year, Colorado’s cannabis industry has generated more than $1 billion in sales and $200 million in tax revenue.

Most states that have legalized recreational marijuana have done so through ballot measures.

Michigan became the first Midwest state to legalize recreational marijuana earlier this month when a majority of voters approved a ballot measure.

But not all states are on board. A ballot measure to decriminalize the drug in North Dakota failed on Election Day.

To legalize the drug in Minnesota, state lawmakers would have to pass legislation or a constitutional amendment that would put the measure on the ballot.

Concerns about public health, additional cost

Any legalization effort will likely face pushback at the state Capitol.

State Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, is a law enforcement veteran who chaired the House public safety committee during this year’s legislative session.

As a law enforcement officer, Johnson said he saw cases where the drug negatively impacted people and their families.

“I don’t think it’s good for Minnesota at all,” Johnson said. “Like all drugs, abuse of it can cause mental health issues.”

The Minnesota Family Council, a local Christian organization, also opposes marijuana legalization. CEO John Helmberger said in a statement that the group would oppose any effort to legalize pot in Minnesota.

“Any financial gains for the state as a result of taxing legalized marijuana will eventually be needed to cover social costs resulting from marijuana use,” Helmberger said.

That was true to an extent in Colorado.

Researchers at Colorado State University-Pueblo recently looked at the economic impact of marijuana in Pueblo County. They found that the new industry led to increased demand for law enforcement and social services that totaled $23 million in added costs.

Those costs were offset, however, by the $58 million that marijuana generated for the county in the same year -- a positive net impact of $35 million.

Advocates hopeful

Advocates for legal marijuana are approaching the issue with renewed optimism after a wave of Democratic-Farmer-Labor victories on election night.

For Marcus Harcus of the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization, Walz’s victory was particularly promising. Outgoing DFL Gov. Mark Dayton opposed legalizing the recreational use of pot.

“It’s very encouraging,” Harcus said. “(But) we need a Legislature to pass the bill, otherwise there’s not very much Gov.-elect Walz can do.”

Harcus said he is confident about a potential bill’s chances in the DFL-controlled House. The challenge will be in the Senate, he said, where Republicans hold a one-seat majority.

Noah Johnson, who ran for attorney general as a candidate of the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party, said DFL lawmakers should push for legalization if they want to win back a wing of progressive voters.

The Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party could become major parties after showings from their candidates on election night.

“I think that both these marijuana parties exist … to wake society up and that this is something we really need to do,” Johnson said. “Conceivably, if one of the major parties, let’s say the Democrats, would adopt this as their platform … that’s a good way to get rid of the third-party competition.”

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