MN House leader: Legalize cannabis this year

The label on a package of cannabis in Nevada — where the drug is legal but regulated — provides information to consumers about the chemical compounds present. (Nevada Current file photo.)

Can anyone provide a solid argument for maintaining the current regime of criminalizing cannabis? I have been all over the state looking for one, and have not yet found it. Yes, I have heard concerns. Cautions. Nervousness. But I have not heard a well-considered argument for continuing our current failed policy.

Cannabis consumption is already commonplace in Minnesota. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly sixteen percent of Minnesotans eighteen and over consume cannabis at least once yearly. This is roughly 680,000 people. A strong majority of Minnesotans believe our current criminalized system should be changed. That undermines the legitimacy of cannabis convictions, and of our criminal justice system.

Our criminal approach to cannabis contains very little justice. African-American and white Minnesotans consume cannabis at very similar rates, yet 2010 data shows that while African-Americans were just five percent of the population they represented thirty percent of cannabis arrests. Criminalizing a product that most people think should be available, and continuing our legacy of racial injustice in doing so, is just not defensible.

African-American and white Minnesotans consume cannabis at very similar rates, yet 2010 data shows that while African-Americans were just five percent of the population they represented thirty percent of cannabis arrests.

Minnesota does have a medical cannabis program, but many veterans can’t get it. Many wounded or traumatized veterans in Minnesota would benefit from using medical cannabis but are unable to acquire it because the VA can’t prescribe it or pay for it. Making cannabis legal for all adults will provide these veterans with access to a substance that can alleviate their pain and help them cope with PTSD.

Further, as states around the country adopt a legal, regulated and taxed approach to cannabis, the availability of various cannabis products is increasing in Minnesota. Illinois and Michigan recently legalized cannabis, and South Dakota will consider it on the ballot this November. Canada has legalized. Even if Minnesota wanted to maintain our current criminalized approach to cannabis, that effort would be futile as cannabis products multiply around us. We simply cannot stop cannabis at our border, and we should not waste our resources in trying to do so.

We simply cannot stop cannabis at our border, and we should not waste our resources in trying to do so.

The most common response to this changing landscape from opponents of legalization is that we should “decriminalize but not commercialize cannabis.” The idea seems to be that we can eliminate the criminal injustice of our system while maintaining cannabis as a banned substance.

But this really makes no sense at all. We currently have an illegal market for cannabis, and no control over quality, safety, potency or any of the other potential dangers. We have people selling cannabis to adults and kids, and no effective control over how they do it. What would “decriminalizing” accomplish? The worst of both worlds: a dangerous illegal market, and no public entity charged with addressing it. This is not the answer.

Skeptics and opponents do raise some important concerns. We should make sure that our system provides resources for regulators, law enforcement and public health officials to protect kids under 21 from cannabis. We need to provide additional resources for drug recognition experts to help protect our roads, and funding for additional addiction and recovery resources. And we pay for these things with a modest level of taxation on the cannabis industry itself.

We need to listen to the many legitimate concerns about cannabis legalization. Then we need to address those concerns through carefully-considered public policy. Democrats in the Minnesota House and Senate, advocacy organizations and the Walz administration have been working on just that for months. We will present a real cannabis solution in the 2020 legislative session.