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The room was nearly full as an unusual, ticketed Senate committee got under way Monday. Most Judiciary hearings are sparsely attended, but this one dealt with a marijuana legalization bill. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
The room was nearly full as an unusual, ticketed Senate committee got under way Monday. Most Judiciary hearings are sparsely attended, but this one dealt with a marijuana legalization bill. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Senate Republicans snuff out pot bid

There was much that was remarkable about Monday’s Senate Judiciary committee hearing—and not just the fact that it was the first state Senate committee to take up recreational marijuana.

It was a hearing that featured testimony from an “unbiased” Colorado expert who left no doubt that he opposes pot and who was given half an hour to upstage the bill’s author, Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina.

It was also a hearing in which one witness testified frankly that he was high. (Whether it is the first legislative hearing at which marijuana aroma was readily detectable is a question requiring more institutional memory than this publication possesses.)

It was a hearing in which a bill co-author, Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, stated plainly that he would not vote for his own bill—he’d signed on simply to guarantee it a hearing, he said.

It was also a hearing that Democrats, whose hopes seemed dashed from the start of debate, might now wish had never happened.

“I’m sitting here a bit stunned,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, shortly before the final vote. “It appears that the entire purpose of bringing this bill up in committee today was to kill it.”

After Franzen’s Senate File 619 was defeated 6-3 along party lines, the senator said she thinks that the effort is dead, at least for this year. “We don’t have a bill to move,” she said. “So I think the debate is shut down in the Senate.”

Asked if she thought Senate leadership engineered the hearing to kill the bill, Franzen said she did. She said it was notable that she had little opportunity to walk senators through the hefty legislation, which she called “pretty comprehensive.”

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to move it to the next committee to have the real debate on the meat of the bill,” she said.

Limmer denied that he tipped the scales. He said the bill was in the works for months and was the subject of a high-profile press conference. People were familiar with it, he said. “So we had the hearing,” he said, “and you know the result.”

Potent debate

Regardless of the outcome, Franzen said, the long debate started a valuable conversation—one that might continue if Gov. Tim Walz convenes a marijuana task force, as Franzen said he could do.

Dale Quigley, deputy coordinator for the National Marijuana Initiative, told the committee, “We come from the middle. We try to look at the neutral positions on this.”

But that stance was somewhat belied by a subsequent statement. “When we boil down to the bottom of this, we are still talking about the legalization of a Schedule 1 controlled substance,” Quigley said. “Which means, by definition, a high probability for abuse and no accepted medical use in the United States.”

Carter Casmaer, a practicing Minneapolis emergency room physician, disagreed.

He said emergency physicians do not fret about patients consuming the plant, which has “no actual toxicity.”

Its classification as a Schedule 1 drug means the feds regard pot as equally dangerous to heroin, and more dangerous than cocaine, methamphetamine and prescription opiates, Casmaer said. He called that a glaring error on the federal government’s part.

“To reassure Mr. Quigley, [marijuana] cannot be taken in overdose,” Casmaer said. “I have never treated a cannabis overdose and I simply never will.”

Ben Feist, ACLU Minnesota’s legislative director, said his group supports the bill’s taxation, licensing, regulation and criminal expungement provisions.

Feist said anti-pot laws disproportionately hurt communities of color. A 2013 ACLU study found that African-Americans in Minnesota are almost eight times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites, despite similar rates of consumption. Those arrests make it hard later on to secure public housing, student financial aid and employment, Feist said.

Meanwhile opponents stressed the dangers—and the unknowns—of the drug.

Ed Ehlinger, a pediatrician and former Minnesota Health Department commissioner, said he supports decriminalization of pot. He said that state’s wise and incremental approach to medical cannabis—which he oversaw at MDH—has allowed the state to slowly study the drug and gauge its used for particular conditions.

But he warned lawmakers to approach full adult legalization cautiously, until more information is available.

Olmsted County Kevin Torgerson said the state’s 87 county sheriffs are united in opposition to legalized pot, while Chief Mike Goldstein of the Plymouth Police Department admitted that he is “philosophically opposed” to legalization.

“If the proposed legislation is passed into law, there will be two undisputed beneficiaries,” he said. “Big Marijuana and those that want to get high.”

Andy Bohlen, the Faribault police chief, said full legalization would increase addiction, mental health problems and traffic fatalities. He also claimed that national pot-decriminalization efforts have led drug cartels to diversify—leading directly to the spike increase in heroin and meth usage.

“The Minnesota chiefs of police feel just like that DEA, that it is a gateway drug,” he said. “If anybody tells you different, they are blowing smoke.”

Not ready for prime time’

When it became clear that GOP lawmakers were tilting toward rejecting the bill—Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, called it “not ready for prime time”—Democrats tried several amendments. All failed.

One would have passed the bill without recommendation to the Health and Human Services committee to continue the conversation. That was shot down. Another would have formed a legislative task force for an in-depth study of pot legalization. That failed, too.

At the last moment, Franzen asked to withdraw the bill. Her request was denied and the vote went ahead. Her bill was defeated, 6-3, with all Republicans voting no.

Democrats can continue to push its companion, House File 420 from Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley. But without a Senate version, it can’t go anywhere beyond the House.

David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor, agrees with Franzen and Latz that Senate Republican leaders engineered a kill-off of the bill. But he suggested Democrats are themselves partly to blame.

A faction that he called “Walz Democrats” introduced the measure and thought it would get a hearing based on what they saw as broad support. But they didn’t lay the necessary groundwork to help it bill pass, he said.

“I guess how I would describe it is they failed to do their homework,” Schultz said.

Speaking after Monday’s hearing, Limmer shared a similar observation.

“[Franzen] sought a hearing and we gave her the courtesy of a hearing,” Limmer said. “It was her job to lobby the Legislature and she had that opportunity to do so.”

Added Limmer, “She never talked to me about it.”


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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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