How skittish Minnesota lawmakers came to embrace marijuana

After brazen timidity made Minnesota's medical marijuana program the nation's most restrictive, five out of six DFL candidates for governor now back legalized recreational use.

After brazen timidity made Minnesota's medical marijuana program the nation's most restrictive, five out of six DFL candidates for governor now back legalized recreational use. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

It was just three years ago that Minnesota approached medical marijuana, a clearly humanitarian treatment for people laid low by chemotherapy and seizures, with brazen timidity.

What ultimately passed was one of the nation's most restrictive programs, which did little to tame an estimated $700 million black market. Patients, unable to afford state-approved products, returned to their friendly neighborhood drug dealers.

Now, despite a late-term governor vowing that full legalization would never pass on his watch, those who would replace him are openly looking forward to the day they get to sign rereational marijuana into law.

Five out of six DFL candidates -- St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, state Reps. Tina Liebling, Erin Murphy, Paul Thissen, and Congressman Tim Walz -- have become card-carrying supporters.

Liebling (Rochester) was arguably the first to unapologetically embrace legalization. She's open about smoking in her 20s and visiting smoke shops with her adult son in Portland, but says she has no interest in using it personally anymore. As a criminal defense attorney, she came to believe the War on Drugs was the wrong approach.

She always liked the idea of legalization, Liebling says, but she didn't know how it could be done. It wasn't until a couple years ago, when she attended some seminars at the National Conferences of State Legislatures, that she began to see how Minnesota could follow Colorado's lead by regulating marijuana like alcohol.

Last session Liebling introduced a bill showing what that regulation would look like, as well as a constitutional amendment. She claims to have gotten some Republicans to agree to the logic, but none was ready to say that publicly. When she announced her candidacy for governor in April, she touted marijuana legalization in all her literature.

"I'd like to think I'm responsible in some way in getting people to step forward," she says. "My activism on the issue might have pushed some of the other candidates to come forward on it because I think it's pretty clear that a lot of people in Minnesota are interested."

Coleman admits he only came around on legalization recently. What finally convinced him, he says, was reading about the disproporationate impact of marijuana enforcement on young people of color.

That problem is nothing new, but having the real world examples of still-functioning Colorado, Washington, and Oregon have made legalization look all the more feasible.

"I don't think there's any question of if we will legalize it. It's when, and I think the time is now."

Murphy (St. Paul), another recent convert, recalls that when she first ran for office back in 2006, a group of Macalester students wanted to know her position on recreational marijuana. She told them she wasn't ready.

Yet as a career nurse, Murphy says she saw first-hand the addictive harms of pain medications much stronger than marijuana. Then came the opioid crisis, and her point of view began to shift.

Walz credits Gov. Mark Dayton for making his strong opposition known, so that the question could be asked of the folks coming after him.

"I've been in an evolving position on that over time, but from a personal standpoint, like many of us, I've witnessed that the system in place simply isn't working," he says. People are going to use marijuana no matter what, undeterred by high incarceration rates.

Three years ago it wasn't a popular topic, Walz says, but attitudes have changed rapidly.

"As governor, one of your responsibilities is to try to lay these things out there. You won't be voting for it, but you have to try and shape the debate on it," he says. "There are opportunities from an economic standpoint to make a positive difference, and I think I trust adults to make decisions with their personal lives."