MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The push to fully legalize marijuana in Minnesota will be up for debate again this legislative session.

The issue has gained momentum in the last month, with the House of Representatives passing federal legislation. It still faces opposition in the Senate. Voters in South Dakota, Montana, New Jersey and Arizona made recreational Marijuana legal in November.

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“Public support is growing for legalizing and expunging criminal records for cannabis,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said.

Winkler will again sponsor a bill for legalization, and explains there are two elements to it.

“We want to create a safe, regulated marketplace where people can buy cannabis, know what they’re getting, where law enforcement knows where cannabis is coming into the community,” Winkler said.

He said addressing the criminal justice aspect of marijuana is paramount.

“There are obviously big racial biases in the criminal justice system, very different arrest rates, very different incarceration depending on your race. The big hurdle is not really trying to convince people that cannabis is good. Nobody is trying to say that. What we’re saying is the current system fails every test of a good public response to a drug that has some adverse effects and has some positive benefits,” Winkler said.

Ahead of last years’ session, Winkler held town hall listening sessions around the state. He heard the benefits from people, including how it would help those that can’t access the current medical marijuana program. He admits there are drawbacks, including risk involved with driving while high.

“There’s always a balance of harms, and I think impaired driving is a relatively smaller harm compared to the harms we’re creating through prohibition,” Winkler said.

WCCO wanted to know what he thinks the chance of getting it passed in Minnesota this next session.

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“I really see Senate leadership as being the number one obstacle. I think if they would agree to put this on the ballot in 2022, I think it would pass overwhelmingly,” Winkler said.

A Senate spokesperson told WCCO: “With a divided government returning to the capitol in 2021, I don’t think recreational marijuana will have a different outcome than last legislative session.” They added that this session will be focused on the budget and COVID recovery. Still there is work going on in the background as the topic is discussed in the state, says the director of Office of Medical Cannabis.

“We are an early adopter. We want to be on board to learn all that we can, this is obviously a hot topic, legalization,” Chris Tholkes said.

The Minnesota Department of Health is a founding member of the Cannabis Regulators Association, or CANN-RA. Members are state regulators responsible for implementing a cannabis program. Here in Minnesota, MDH already regulates medical marijuana.

“It’s just looking at learning from other states that have been doing this longer, what have they put into practice in their state and what can we learn from that,” Tholkes said.

Winkler says he worked with state agencies when drafting the original bill, and will continue to push for its hearing and passage.

“We can do it right and it’s time for us to get moving,” Winkler said.

The legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 5.

WCCO traveled to Colorado in 2019 to look at how that state is doing years after legalizing recreational marijuana. We also set up a road test to look at the dangers of driving while high.

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Jennifer Mayerle