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Senate GOP leader rejects vote on legalized cannabis

The Minnesota state Capitrol building was where the home stretch of the 2018 legislative session began Monday, April 9, 2018. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- As proposals to legalize recreational marijuana take shape in the House, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Monday, Jan. 28, that the bills do not have a chance to pass in his chamber.

The Republican from Nisswa made the statement shortly after a news conference where two Democratic lawmakers and a Republican senator unveiled a bill to legalize recreational marijuana.

While Democrats control the state House, Republican hold a two-seat majority in the Senate.

Gazelka called the legalization of marijuana a “controversial issue, to say the least,” and said Republicans in the Senate are focused on other priorities — like crafting a two-year budget and reducing health care costs.

“Legalizing recreational marijuana is … not something I would consider a priority issue,” Gazelka said in a statement.

Three bills proposed, another on the way

Three legalization bills have been introduced at the State Capitol so far, and another is on the way.

Here’s what the current bills look like:

  • Minnesotans would vote on legalization in 2020 under a proposal from Minneapolis DFL Rep. Raymond Dehn.

  • A measure from Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, would also put legalization on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in 2020. But her bill would first have the Legislature approve a detailed proposal for voters to consider.

  • The Legislature would legalize and regulate marijuana under a bill from Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, and Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina. Past convictions for non-violent offenses could also be expunged.

Another bill is in the works that would have the Legislature legalize and regulate the drug. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, is working with advocates on the bill that she may not sponsor herself.

DFLers seek coordination within party

All told, there could soon be four legalization proposals from Democrats in the House.

Freiberg said having several proposals could “enhance the discussion” on the issue. Hausman and Liebling, though, expressed frustration about a lack of coordination within the DFL caucus.

Hausman called it “unusual” to have multiple proposals from the same party in the same chamber on the same issue. She said it is more likely to hurt than help the chances of passing a legalization bill through the House.

“We always do better when the advocates are together,” Hausman said.

Liebling said lawmakers had planned to meet early in session to discuss what a legalization bill could look like. That meeting never happened.

“I had hoped that we were going to start with one bill that was going to be a product of a lot of ideas involving a lot of the legislators,” Liebling said. “I just think the process would be a bit smoother if we had worked it out beforehand.”

GOP concerns include safety, child exposure

Gazelka cited worries about impaired driving and adolescent brain development in his statement.

Other states that have legalized the drug have reported drops in marijuana use among adolescents. Though teenagers who start using marijuana are more likely to become addicted.

About 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That number rises to 17 percent for those who start using the drug in their teens.

State Sen. Scott Newman, a Republican from Hutchinson who chairs the transportation committee, shared similar concerns.

“It’s impossible to keep impaired people off the roads when they’re high. Why would we work so hard to make progress on distracted driving with a hands-free driving law, only to go backward by legalizing recreational marijuana?” Newman said.

Some studies have noted an uptick in overall car accidents in states where marijuana is legal.

Advocates not happy with either party

Marcus Harcus of the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization criticized Gazelka for his reluctance to take up the issue. He argued that Gazelka should “set aside his personal bias” and bring the bills to a vote on the Senate floor.

“There is no excuse for Minnesota not to have the best model for adult personal use in the country,” said Harcus, who is working with Hausman on a legalization bill.

Harcus also criticized DFL lawmakers for not uniting behind a common proposal.

“If you have multiple legalization bills, (lawmakers are) not going to know which one is better and most of them are not going to take the time to figure it out,” he said.

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