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Marijuana bill clears Minnesota House in historic vote

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota House passed a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana use after hours of debate Thursday night in a historic vote that marked the first time either chamber has voted on legalization.

The bill — which would legalize marijuana use for adults and expunge minor marijuana convictions — passed on a 72-61 vote after nearly five hours of debate on the House floor. Passage of the bill was expected in the Democratic-controlled House but it is likely the end of the road for the issue this session, with Republicans who control the Senate saying they won’t bring it up.

On Friday, Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said it was “a bit disappointing” that the House spent time on a bill that wasn’t likely to be passed in the Senate.

“There’s not even a comparable bill in the Senate,” he said.

Several Republicans joined Democrats to vote to pass the legislation, but Swedzinski wasn’t one of them. He voted no.

“I’ve never been in support of it. I don’t think it’s going to improve people’s lives,” he said. He said the issue of legalizing marijuana raised concerns for law enforcement, and posed questions as to how to enforce offenses like driving while impaired.

The bill was authored by Democratic House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, of Golden Valley. The measure steadily gained support from lawmakers across the aisle on its journey through a dozen committee stops before Thursday’s vote.

Winkler went to more than a dozen cities across Minnesota to get input from residents and build support for the proposal, which Democrats say would help address racial inequities in marijuana arrests and convictions among white and Black residents despite similar usage rates.

“Cannabis prohibition in Minnesota has been a failure,” Winkler said on the House floor Thursday. “The criminal penalties associated with cannabis prohibition have been unfairly applied to communities of color, and especially Black Minnesotans.”

During debate before the vote, House GOP members pointed out several reservations with the bill, including the potential for increased driving under the influence, a lack of roadside tests for marijuana for law enforcement and uncertainty for businesses screening applicants who use cannabis, among other concerns.

Republicans in the House called the proposal a futile effort due to opposition in the Senate, where Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, has said the proposal is dead on arrival.

GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, of Crown — echoed by several other members of his caucus as the night went on — said the focus should instead be on reaching a deal on tax exemptions for businesses that received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and individuals who received unemployment benefits, as well as crafting the state’s two-year budget.

“Our voters sent us here to pass a state budget and at this point Democrats have passed zero budget bills,” Daudt said. “And with just a few days left in session, here we are wasting our time on this marijuana bill that has no chance of becoming law.”

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational marijuana for adults to varying degrees, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Minnesota is one of many states that allow medical marijuana, but its restrictions are some of the country’s strictest.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison voiced his support for legalization via Twitter on Thursday, saying law enforcement uses significant resources to pursue minor marijuana offenses, which has led to “significant racial disparities in our criminal justice system and injustice in our communities.”

Longtime proponents of recreational marijuana say passage in the House alone is a heartening step towards legalization. The proposal will likely make a return during the 2022 legislative session and be a topic of debate for candidates in next year’s election.

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