Minnesota is ready for marijuana legalization

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.)

Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler introduced legislation last week to little fanfare that would legalize adult-use marijuana in Minnesota. Recognizing that we currently have bigger priorities, he indicated that consideration of the bill would be tabled until after the pandemic.

But it’s not too soon to discuss the idea’s merits. The Winkler bill is a careful, comprehensive piece of legislation — 222 pages — that aims to thoughtfully regulate marijuana for adults and keep it away from kids.

The entire nation of Canada, 11 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for adults. Within a few hours of Minneapolis, marijuana dispensaries currently operate in Thunder Bay, Ontario; Marquette, Michigan; and Rockford, Illinois.  Significantly, no state that has legalized marijuana has reverted to prohibition.

The reason for this is simple: once people see that marijuana is no more dangerous to society than alcohol, the stigma of both using cannabis and making it legal disappear, leading to widespread acceptance.

There are many public-policy reasons to legalize marijuana.

The most important reason is racial equity. Marijuana laws are often used as a pretext for police to harass, intimidate and arrest. After killing Philando Castile, the police officer attempted to justify his actions by claiming that the smell of marijuana made him fear for his life.

Although it may be counterintuitive, legalization reduces teen use. Unlike licensed businesses, marijuana sellers currently operate anywhere in Minnesota. More than 40 percent of high schoolers know a peer who sells marijuana in school. Regulating marijuana moves sales into licensed, regulated retail stores, like alcohol. 

Exactly zero states have seen an increase in teen use after legalization. But don’t take my word for it. During a hearing in the Minnesota Senate last year, Dale Quigley, an anti-legalization advocate, admitted that teen use goes down after legalization. (the admission begins at the 20-minute mark. here.)

Legalization also benefits public health. Last year’s vape crisis was caused by black-market vape cartridges with harmful additives. A regulated market would protect the public from such dangerous products.

Winkler’s bill would also provide funding for public education about marijuana’s potential harms.  Similar programs targeted at cigarettes have reduced teen cigarette use by 84 percent since 1997. Education, regulation, and a prohibition on advertising that targets teens are the best ways to prevent underage use.

In the long run, legalization can help reduce impaired driving. Even though marijuana is currently illegal, Minnesotans are driving while impaired by marijuana. Although there is no breathalyzer equivalent for marijuana, new tax revenue from legal sales can be used to more effectively train law enforcement to detect impaired drivers and keep our streets safe.

Additionally, legalization boosts the economy. Colorado has issued more than 40,000 active licenses to individuals working in the newly legal marijuana industry, which means jobs in cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, marketing and retail.

Legalization allows police to focus on serious crime. In 2017, only 38 percent of reported rapes and 15 percent of reported burglaries resulted in an arrest in Minnesota. Meanwhile, as Washington, D.C.’s former police chief put it: “All these [marijuana] arrests do is make people hate us.” A Department of Justice study found that community trust was vital to law enforcement’s ability to solve violent crimes. If we want to solve those serious crimes, we should stop hassling people for marijuana in neighborhoods comprising lots of people who can help us. 

Which brings us to a common argument against legalization but we can refute it here: Legalization does not increase crime. There is no evidence that legalization leads to other drug use or increased crime. To the contrary, as with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, the black market breeds violence. Let’s admit that prohibition has failed. 

One recent study indicated that more than one out of eight adults in Minnesota had smoked marijuana during the past month. By legalizing marijuana and carefully regulating its sale, we can reduce teen use, stop sending people to prison for victimless crimes and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue to help all of Minnesota.