ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — A group of DFL lawmakers cite growing bipartisan support and legalization of marijuana in a slate of other states in their latest quest to approve a bill that would allow recreational use in Minnesota, and automatically expunge low-level cannabis convictions that disproportionately impact Black Minnesotans.

“The tide is shifting, and it’s coming in very strong,” said House DFL Majority Leader Ryan Winkler.

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During a news conference on Monday, Winkler pointed to recent action in neighboring and heavily-Republican South Dakota, where voters approved recreational marijuana during the 2020 election, though the law faces a court challenge.

Arizona, Montana and New Jersey had similar ballot measures that passed, bringing the total number of states that have legalized the drug to 15 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. There is also an effort underway by supporters in North Dakota to get the proposal on the ballot in 2022.

“Cannabis got almost as many votes in South Dakota as Donald Trump did,” Winkler said.

He told reporters legalization elsewhere shows bipartisan support is growing, and a bordering state with such laws ups the ante for Minnesota to act.

“If people are willing to drive to Wisconsin in order to buy fireworks, they’re sure as heck gonna drive to South Dakota to get cannabis,” he said.

The proposal is framed as a way to legalize and regulate cannabis, but it aims to address racial disparities that persist in the criminal justice system. A Black Minnesotan is five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white resident, according to an analysis by the ACLU Minnesota.

(credit: CBS)

The 173-page bill includes automatically expunging low-level cannabis convictions and establishing a panel to review “as quickly as possible” any criminal records that include charges more severe than misdemeanor-level convictions, Winkler said.

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“As we’ve worked together this session to break down systemic racism and deliver true racial justice, we cannot ignore such a widespread inequity,” said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Minnesotans under the age of 21 would be barred from use under the bill. The proposal would allocate revenues to fund youth access prevention and substance abuse treatment.

The effort could yield $1.2 billion in sales, create 20,000 jobs and generate $300 million in tax revenue in the first five years, according to one estimate in a MinnPost report. This comes as the state faces a $1.3 billion deficit that lawmakers will need to plug when crafting the next two-year budget this session.

Legal marijuana still faces roadblocks by Senate GOP

Democrats have tried and failed to make legal recreational use of cannabis in the state because Republicans in a divided government have thwarted those efforts in recent years. This session appears no different, though Rep. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, expressed willingness to discuss the issue.

“Members of all political parties should work together towards implementing a better regulatory model to address the expensive, inefficient and unfair prohibition on marijuana,” Garofalo said in a statement. “Reasonable people may disagree on the best way to fix our broken system, but nobody can responsibly defend the status quo.”

But its true fate lies in the Republican-controlled Senate, and Majority Leader Paul Gazelka all but said the bill is dead on arrival this year. He said he is open to discussion about expanding medical uses and changes to drug sentencing, but cautioned against a “rush” to pass the policy in Minnesota for fear “unintended consequences” of legalization are not yet fully known.

“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,” Gazelka said in a statement. “I would not consider legalizing recreational marijuana as a Minnesota priority.”

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The state has a medical cannabis program eligible for Minnesotans suffering from certain qualifying medical conditions. Gov. Tim Walz has expressed support for legalizing recreational marijuana for adults.

Caroline Cummings