Legal marijuana rally

Supporters of legalizing marijuana in Minnesota rallied at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. back in 2014. (Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News)

As the 2020 election season gets under way, the COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that this will be a campaign like no other. That presents new opportunities and formidable challenges to the state’s third parties, including two with Rice County ties.

While the Presidential race may be garnering the most attention, Minnesotans will have plenty of other races to decide in 2020. The state’s entire legislature and congressional delegation are on the ballot along with the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Tina Smith. Voters dissatisfied with the two major parties will have a third option to vote for. That’s because two pro-marijuana parties managed to secure ballot access for 2020 and 2022, thanks to unexpectedly strong performances in 2018.

For the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party, 29-year old Minneapolis lawyer Noah Johnson won 5.7% of the vote in the race for attorney general, even though he endorsed DFLer Keith Ellison shortly before the election. As the only third-party candidate running against a pair of controversial major party nominees, Johnson was expected to do relatively well. More surprising perhaps was the strong showing of Legal Marijuana Now candidate Michael Ford, who won 5.3% in the state auditor’s race.

Public support for marijuana legalization is now at historic highs, with a recent poll from Minnesota Public Radio and the Star-Tribune finding that 51% of Minnesotans support recreational marijuana legalization, with just 37% opposed.

That marked a huge shift from 2014, when the MPR News/Star-Tribune poll showed just 30% of Minnesotans in favor of recreational marijuana legalization. In 2018, both pro-marijuana parties were able to ride this growing wave of support into unprecedented results.

Under Minnesota law, candidates for parties which secure at least 5% of the vote in at least one statewide election are given automatic ballot access. That means that their candidates can get on the ballot by paying a simple filing fee, rather than gathering signatures on a petition.

The two parties, the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party, enjoy a close relationship. Founded in 1986, the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party is the older of the two. In 1998, a small group broke away from the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party to form the Legal Marijuana Party. Still, the parties enjoy warm relations, and it’s rare for both parties to field a candidate in the same race.

Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party Chairman Chris Wright, who co-founded the party in 1986, is a familiar presence on Minnesota ballots. He’s run for governor four times and is running this year for a state legislative seat in Minneapolis.

Since its founding, the major issue uniting Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party has been support for legalizing cannabis, as well as pardons for people convicted of marijuana possession or distribution.

Wright said that most of the party’s membership goes much further, preferring to see the “War on Drugs” dismantled and replaced with a drug policy of regulation and treatment for those who need it, comparable to the way the state approaches the sale and distribution of alcohol.

In addition to arguing that the “War on Drugs” and laws against marijuana specifically have violated the civil liberties of Minnesota and inflicted particular pain on communities of color, Wright and the Grassroots Party have long held that laws prohibiting Marijuana run afoul of Article 13, Section 7 of the state Constitution, which states:

“Any person may sell or peddle the products of the farm or garden occupied and cultivated by him without obtaining a license therefor.”

That provision was added to the Constitution in 1906, to protect small and family farmers to sell their goods at local markets. Prior to the Amendment’s passage, some local units of government had hit these farmers with peddler’s fees that they deemed obtrusive and excessive.

After being arrested for growing 41 marijuana plants in his home in 1996, Wright asked the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that the state’s anti-marijuana laws run afoul of that section of the Constitution.

However, the court upheld the law, arguing that the amendment creates a “privilege” for farmers to bring their products to market, but does not rise to the level of creating a “fundamental liberty” for farmers to sell products.

Wright said that the Legal Marijuana Now Party was created to see whether a party which explicitly referenced marijuana in its name would poll better. It indeed did so, after which the Grassroots Party added the “Legalize Cannabis” portion to its name.

Both parties are set to get another boost because under state law, major party candidates are ordered on the ballot based on their performance at the previous election, with worst-performing parties at the top and the best-performing at the bottom. That means that Legal Marijuana Now and Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidates will not only be on the ballot, but will be placed at the top of the ballot. Carleton College Political Science Professor Melanie Freeze said that research suggests that could help boost their vote share.

“It can make a difference for less well-known candidate,” she said. “If you walk into the polling booth and don’t have any preference, maybe you’ll just mark them off.”

While the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis and Legal Marijuana Now parties fell far short of running a full slate of candidates across the state, they will field more candidates than many third parties have in recent years. Local candidates include a pair of State Senate hopefuls, Jason Hoschette, of Northfield, and David Pulkrabek, of Blue Earth, and Congressional candidates, Bill Rood, of Rochester, and Adam Weeks, of Goodhue.

According to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website, Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Now fielded six candidates for state Senate, five for U.S. Congress (two in the same district, forcing a primary), one for state house and one for Tina Smith’s U.S. Senate seat

Legalize Marijuana Now is running a similar total, with seven candidates on the ballot for state Senate, five for state House, three for U.S. Congress and a candidate for Smith’s seat. Only three races will have candidates for both pro-Marijuana parties.

Not all of those candidates are focused on the issue of cannabis legalization. Many bring with them long backgrounds in other parties, such as the Libertarians and Greens, which have struggled to get on the ballot by petition this year.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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