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Recreational marijuana bill stalls in Senate committee, prospects unclear

Plymouth Police Chief Michael Goldstein testifies against a bill that would legalize marijuana for recreational use in Minnesota and expunge certain crimes related to marijuana on Monday, March 11, 2019. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- A proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Minnesota came up short of the support it needed in a Senate committee, raising questions about the proposal's future.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy on Monday, March 11, voted 6-3 to reject a proposal that would legalize marijuana and allow for the expungement of certain crimes involving the drug. Democrats on the panel supported the bill while Republicans opposed it.

The decision came after the panel heard hours of testimony and considered passing the proposal without a recommendation, setting it aside or gutting it to set up a state task force to study legalization. Democrats on the panel supported keeping the bipartisan bill alive while Republicans opposed it.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, earlier this year said the measure likely wouldn't have a chance to pass the Senate this year. And while the committee chair gave the bill a hearing as a courtesy, he said the testimony from law enforcement officers, doctors, marijuana commercialization opponents and others made clear to him that legalization was the wrong path forward.

"It just seems to me that this is not a healthy path to go for the state of Minnesota," Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said.

But bill author Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, said Republicans on the committee acted to ensure the conversation wouldn't move forward this year.

"It certainly brought up concerns that are there and we all know are there," Franzen said. "Now we'll have to wait."

Franzen said Gov. Tim Walz could set up a task force to study legalization as it appears unlikely to gain traction in the Minnesota Senate.

Bill supporters including recreational marijuana advocates, civil liberties advocates, an emergency physician, supporters of marijuana decriminalization and medical marijuana patients urged lawmakers to pass the bill. They said it would help reduce racial inequities in marijuana arrests and allow those who want to access the drug the option in a more safely regulated environment.

"Minnesotans from all walks of life are asking questions," Leili Fatehi, Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation campaign manager said. "Minnesota is ready to talk meaningfully and truthfully about legalization."

Opponents including law enforcement officers, physicians, drug awareness educators and former marijuana users stood to oppose the bill. They said legalizing the drug for recreational use could lead to higher rates of marijuana use among teens and more cases of impaired motorists on Minnesota roadways.

“We urge the state to wait and see and let others figure out the best way to do this," Judson "Kim" Bemis, Jr., president of Safe Approaches to Marijuana Minnesota, said.