A display model single-use vaporizer electronic joint is is displayed with packaged marijuana oil concentrate cartridges at a pot shop in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP file photo)

With Gov. Tim Walz ordering Minnesota state agencies to prepare Minnesota for marijuana legalization, the state could be looking at another push to legalize marijuana. Although the push is unlikely to succeed, this controversial and complicated policy issue could have major ramifications in the 2020 elections and beyond.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, is expected to introduce some form of a legalization bill in the House next year. At the State Fair, Winkler began a statewide “listening tour,” to solicit feedback on the issue. The DFL holds a 75-59 majority in the State House after winning 18 previously Republican held seats last year, mostly in suburban areas, amidst a national “blue wave.”

With Republicans now holding a 35-32 majority, both sides acknowledge that as long as the Senate remains Republican, legalization is unlikely to succeed.

Proponents of marijuana legalization often tout the benefits of raising money from taxes on the newly legalized product. In Washington State, for example, taxes on marijuana have raised an amount of state revenue comparable to alcohol and tobacco taxes.

While most states that have legalized cannabis have seen new revenues comparable to or more than what they had been expecting, the nation’s largest state has not.

After eight years of medical marijuana, Californians legalized recreational marijuana by ballot petition in 2016 amid promises of more than $600 million in revenue. However, the state has netted barely half of its expected revenue. Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration reduced estimated marijuana revenue in 2020 by $223 million, blowing a major hole in California’s budget.

State Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, is among those concerned by the push for marijuana legalization. Jasinski says he’s unsatisfied with the argument that legalization should be supported to create increased revenue.

Jasinski pointed to two studies published last year that showed a 5-6% increase in the number of car crashes in Washington and Colorado subsequent to legalization. About 14% of the drivers under the influence of marijuana had children in their vehicle at the time of the crash, according to a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“You can’t make a determination based just on the dollar amount,” he said. “You’ve got to act based on what’s right for the state.”

Kathy Cooper, of the Rice County Safe Roads Coalition, said she’s particularly concerned about the combined effects of marijuana and alcohol on a driver’s system, pointing to the increase in cannabis-related automotive fatalities

“Simultaneous use is associated with greater harm,” Cooper said. “You may not be drinking in excess but if you’re smoking marijuana as well you might have greater impairment. We’re starting to see that in some of the crashes.”

Cooper’s daughter Meghan was killed in a car crash more than 20 years ago. Cooper said the driver of the vehicle, in addition to being drunk, admitted to smoking significant amounts of marijuana the day of the crash.

Impact on crime?

Gallup’s polling data showed that many Americans who support legalization cite as a major reason for their support that legalization would free up police to address other crimes. A 2018 analysis of FBI data for Colorado and Washington by researchers at Washington State University showed that crime clearance rates for some crimes decreased after marijuana was legalized.

Rep. Todd Lippert, D-Northfield, said he is among those who believe that marijuana is taking too much time away from law enforcement. Lippert added that he’s particularly concerned about the racial disparity in marijuana arrests and sentencing.

According to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, an African-American is nearly eight times as likely as a white person to be arrested in Minnesota for marijuana use, even though African-Americans and whites use marijuana at similar rates. That’s more than twice the disparity the ACLU found nationwide.

In an attempt to reduce the disparity, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey directed the city’s Police Department to end marijuana sting operations last year. Frey and critics of the program have argued that such programs often disproportionately target African-American and/or Latino men.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo argued the sting operations had reduced crime and denied that the department had intentionally targeted African-Americans. Arradondo did acknowledge that the vast majority of those arrested were African-American and low income.

The Minnesota Police Chiefs Union has weighed in against the potential legalization of marijuana, along with other police unions nationwide. Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen testified before the Minnesota Senate last year against a marijuana legalization bill that was ultimately defeated in committee along party lines.

Bohlen said while the long-term effects of full legalization aren’t yet clear, law enforcement ultimately views marijuana as a gateway drug that can lead to increased usage of drugs later on. Bohlen fears that legalization and increased usage of marijuana would lead to more mental health issues, more crime and more use of hard drugs.

“I ran a drug task force before I became the chief of Faribault, and didn’t see a lot of good that came out of it,” Bohlen said. “As a police professional for over 30 years, I don’t see a health benefit.”

Its effects

Some studies have linked marijuana use to an increase in the rate of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a particularly strong correlation between increased marijuana use and increased rates of schizophrenia can be found among persons with certain genetic markers.

Bohlen noted that in some states that have legalized marijuana, high prices and taxes have kept demand for marijuana on the black market high. In many cases, people begin consuming synthetic marijuana instead. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, synthetic marijuana is 30 times more likely than regular marijuana to result in an incident requiring emergency treatment.

Smoking marijuana, or inhaling secondhand smoke, can also expose people to significant long term physical health risks, according to the American Lung Association. According to the ALA, marijuana smoke contains many of the same toxins and carcinogens as tobacco smoke. Furthermore, marijuana smokers often inhale longer and deeper, increasing their exposure.

Critics of marijuana legalization are particularly concerned by the effect of increased access to marijuana could have on children. Already, nearly one third of 10th-graders say they’ve tried marijuana at least once in their life, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggested that even using marijuana once or twice can make lead to significant alterations of the adolescent brain. In 2018, a study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that adolescents who frequently used marijuana were more likely than non-users to have lower scores on tests of memory, learning new information, problem solving and information processing.

It’s less clear whether legalizing marijuana actually increases adolescent marijuana usage. A study published earlier this summer in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics analyzed data on 1.4 million high school students from 1991 to 2017 and found the legalization of recreational marijuana to be associated with a decline in marijuana use. Researchers argued that one reason for the decline could be that street dealers were replaced with licensed dispensaries requiring proof of age.

The study’s proponents touted it as the most comprehensive to date, while critics argued it was in conflict other state-level studies which found little evidence of a decline in adolescent marijuana use in the wake of marijuana legalization. Even supporters of marijuana acknowledge that the data is limited because most states which have legalized marijuana have only done so very recently.

Advocates of legal marijuana say that although there may be significant issues to work out with cannabis legalization, they’re confident that the issues can be worked out with proper implementation and regulation.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, says he’s become increasingly convinced that legalizing and regulating marijuana is the way to go. Lesch touted the medicinal benefits of marijuana for many and argued that it would be appropriate to legalize and tax the drug, as is currently done with alcohol.

“There are potential problems with cannabis legalization, but no more than currently exist with alcohol,” Lesch said.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew.

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