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Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, wants a bill that forms a task force to study cannabis, especially the effects of marijuana impairment. It would also tackle elements of the pro-cannabis agenda — decriminalization, records expungements and removing marijuana from Minnesota’s Schedule I drugs list. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Lawmakers plot path to legal marijuana

If Minnesota’s GOP senators are wise, one of their own ranks said Wednesday, they will take to heart the message sent by suburban voters in Tuesday’s elections and consider passing cannabis legislation next year.

Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, spoke at the CannCon Symposium as part of a legislative panel. The daylong CannCon event was organized by BridgeTower Media, parent of this newspaper. It explored the potential business impact of marijuana legalization in Minnesota and what it would take to get a bill passed.

Jensen was joined by two DFL senators — Edina’s Melisa Franzen and Minneapolis’ Jeff Hayden — and by lawyer Leili Fatehi of the cannabis consulting firm Blunt Strategies. Kevin C. Riach, shareholder at Fredrikson & Byron, moderated.

Republicans awoke Wednesday to news that the Virginia GOP lost both its statehouse majorities to high suburban turnout, extending a national trend that includes Republicans’ 2018 loss of the Minnesota House. The party Tuesday apparently also lost Kentucky’s governor race, despite a full-court press by President Donald Trump to make it a referendum on himself. The Republican governor had not conceded when this newspaper went to press.

“I think that if we don’t see last night’s message loud and clear, we are guilty of putting our head in the sand,” Jensen told the audience inside the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel’s Old Milwaukee Depot.

Jensen, a physician, doesn’t advocate pot’s immediate recreational legalization. The state’s not ready for that, he insists. Nor is he pushing especially hard to expand Minnesota’s medical cannabis program, though he is convinced its medical and health benefits are real.

Because it would move the needle and attract needed GOP state Senate support next year, Jensen favors what might be considered related legislation.

Jensen wants a bill that forms a task force to study pot, especially the effects of marijuana impairment. It would also tackle justice-reform elements of the pro-cannabis agenda — decriminalization, records expungements and removing pot from Minnesota’s Schedule I drugs list. Currently pot sits beside heroin, methaqualone and LSD on that list; cocaine and oxycodone are on the list of “milder” Schedule II drugs.

What state Senate Republicans dare not do, Jensen said in an interview, is repeat their performance from 2019 when their Judiciary committee staged what he called an “ambush” hearing designed to kill off Franzen’s legalization bill, Senate File 619.

Nor, he said, should Republicans take a cannabis bill that contains his four priority provisions to the Senate floor only to vote it down. “If that happens, my colleagues in the suburbs would lose [the 2020 election],” he said.

To him, cannabis is that big an issue to both suburban and younger voters — bigger, he says, than gun legislation. If no cannabis law passes in 2020, he said, they will rebel against his party.

“I think you’re going to see the campuses become a little bit more of a hotbed,” he said.

‘Keep me happy’

Jensen, who plans to serve out his current term then retire, is speaking pretty freely these days about his party’s 2019 pot performance.

On March 11, when Senate Judiciary took up Franzen’s bill, advocates felt they’d made a breakthrough. However, before Franzen could even introduce it, an advocate from Colorado, Dale Quigley, got half an hour to press lawmakers to maintain prohibition. As a federal Schedule I drug, Quigley said, pot “by definition” has “a high probability for abuse and no accepted medical use in the United States.”

A lengthy debate followed, but the result was preordained — the committee voted the bill down and blocked its advance. That led to what Jensen calls a “come-to-Jesus moment” between himself and his caucus. It was one of the rare moments when the mild-tempered Jensen says he ever lost his cool at the Capitol.

“I just said, ‘Enough is enough. I cannot trust you folks to really exhibit the same kind of appetite to learn more that I think we should have,’” Jensen recalled. “So I think they’re nervous that, if this comes up again, they would lose me.”

With its slim 35-32 voting majority, the GOP Senate has little wiggle room for floor defections. “Generally,” he told the Depot crowd, “they like to keep me happy,”

Wednesday’s CannCon legislative panel, left to right: Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina; Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis; Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska; Leili Fatehi, Blunt Strategies; and moderator Kevin Riach, a Fredrikson & Byron shareholder. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Wednesday’s CannCon legislative panel, left to right: Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina; Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis; Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska; Leili Fatehi, Blunt Strategies; and moderator Kevin Riach, a Fredrikson & Byron shareholder. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Rough contours

While Franzen took the lead on the 2019 Senate bill, Assistant Senate Minority Leader Hayden will lead next year’s effort.

Asked by Riach what his bill might look like, Hayden demurred. “I hesitate to kind of say what I would want to see,” he said. There is too much left to learn, he said.

Right now, Hayden said, DFL lawmakers are in fact-gathering mode. He has been participating with House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, in his 15-city marijuana-bill listening tour. Winkler also spoke at the CannCon conference to discuss his listening tour which he said will extend into next year. While he wants to have a bill for the next session, Winkler said, he planned an “inclusive, broad and relatively slow approach.”

In contrast to Jensen, Winkler predicted that the bill would move through the House but was unsure whether the Senate would vote since Republicans are in the majority.

Meanwhile, Hayden is leading a work group of DFL House and Senate members, plus some Walz administration commissioners, to collect data and bat around ideas. The absence of Republicans from the work group, he said, is not by design.

“We’re more than willing to listen to the GOP,” he said. “They just haven’t had an appetite yet to kind of get involved, with the exception of Senator Jensen.”

Hayden did describe some rough contours of a possible bill. He thinks, for example, that it likely would contain the decriminalization and expungement reforms Jensen favors. It also could contain “economic development” features aimed at guaranteeing that communities of color and others most injured by the war on drugs could participate in and profit from the new industry.

He wants to heed skeptics from the medical and addiction recovery communities, but balance their demands against those of veterans and others who either don’t qualify or can’t afford to enroll in the state’s strict medical marijuana program.

Another concerned group, according to Franzen, is psychologists. Some have warned her that human brain development doesn’t conclude until the mid-20s and have pressed her to maintain prohibition to age 25. She said that’s unlikely, given that the legal drinking age is 21.

But Jensen called brain-development a “fake news” issue and offered “one small piece of ammunition” to counter the argument. Gray-matter brain development actually ends around at age 16, he said. Critics conflate development with “cognitive emotional maturation,” he said.

If maturity is the standard for letting people make their own decisions, Jensen said, all males should be prevented from voting until age 35, when they reach full cognitive emotional maturation. But they’d lose it at age 52, when memory loss begins. Women get nine extra years, he added, but their decision-making window, too, would have to be limited.

“We don’t have to go out there and accuse a 19-year-old of having a mushy brain,” Jensen said. “His brain is developed and it’s not going to change.”

Big decisions

Many other issues were tackled during the 75-minute discussion. Among the choices that need to be made, panelists said, are selecting the right regulatory authority, deciding the levels at which legal pot gets taxed and determining who gets dispensary licenses.

An earlier CanConn speaker, Marijuana Policy Group Director Sal Barnes, spoke of how critical it is to get the taxation and licensing schemes right once pot is legalized. Those choices will help determine whether a black market remains viable, Barnes said.

He cautioned against setting taxes so high that buyers feel priced out and turn back to affordably illegal pot. He also cautioned against liberality in dispensing sales licenses. Too many licenses lead to overproduction and oversupply, which in turn leads dealers to sell out of state where pot remains illegal.

Blunt Strategies’ Fatehi agreed those are concerns and added a few of her own. She said that if legalization comes to Minnesota, Massachusetts’ experience should be avoided. There, she said, dispensaries have been clustered in areas that poorer communities can’t get to, encouraging a continued black market.

She said the choice of a regulatory authority also is critical. Pot shouldn’t simply be handed to the state’s Board of Pharmacy, she said, because it isn’t equipped for the job. Nor should it be given, by default, to the Department of Health because its expertise is too concentrated. “This is an issue are that is multijurisdictional and multidisciplinary,” Fatehi said.

“Bad regulations happen when a regulatory agency hits the limits of its jurisdiction, expertise and knowledge and it needs to make something happen,” she said. “That sticks and it has real ramifications.”

In addition to BridgeTower and Fredrikson & Byron, the CannCon event’s sponsors included law firm Cozen O’Connor, the progressive AM950 radio station, the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, the Goff Public P.R. firm and Minnesota Cannabis Law legal services.

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