Not many people might expect a Republican state senator from Carver County, one of the most conservative counties in Minnesota, to co-author legislation legalizing marijuana.
But Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, believes he’s up to the challenge.
“If I don’t put myself in a position where I’m a strong participant in these discussions, I’m short-changing not just the constituents in Carver County, but short-changing citizens of Minnesota,” Jensen said.
On Jan. 28, Jensen became the only Republican co-author of the Senate bill to legalize recreational use of cannabis for those over 21, with Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, as the chief sponsor. A House bill has also been introduced, with no Republican co-authors.
“Three months ago I could not have envisioned myself standing at a podium speaking on a marijuana issue, but I’ve had numerous constituents ask me to get involved. They said, ‘Doc, with your scientific background, your awareness of what’s going on in the field, you need to do this, you need to be on the side of this that’s moving this discussion forward,” Jensen said, at a Jan. 28 press conference announcing the bill.
That said, in a phone interview, Jensen said he told Franzen that he would not vote for the introduced bill. Jensen said he’s more interested in a “robust discussion” about the issue.
“We have to remember that we can’t know what we don’t know,” he said.
“In some form, I could see voting for decriminalization of marijuana. I don’t know if decriminalization is the same as legalization,” Jensen said.
“It would be hard for me this year to vote for a legalization bill. I don’t think we know enough,” he said.
Jensen raised a handful of issues to consider, such as any role marijuana may have as a gateway drug, marijuana-laced edibles and impaired driving.
“The only way we can learn about what we don’t know is roll up our sleeves and start discussing it,” he said.
As a medical doctor, Jensen said he’s been watching the issue closely.
He notes that the criteria to be prescribed medical marijuana, which is legal in Minnesota, has become broad, to include common maladies such as sleep apnea. He said he did a poll of two weeks of his patients over the age of 50 and found that three-fourths would qualify for medical marijuana.
He also notes other states, including Michigan, have legalized marijuana. Two Minnesota groups advocating cannabis legalization received enough votes last election to receive major political party status, Jensen said.
“I think it’s a ship that’s already sailed. It’s a question of when and how it’s going to happen,” he said.
Legalization of marijuana elicits varied response from residents.
Chanhassen resident Charles Ehlers is concerned that marijuana is a gateway drug to harsher drugs, something he said he’s witnessed first-hand. He is also concerned about impaired driving and marijuana’s impact on youth brain development.
“It should go to a vote, statewide vote. Nine other states have legalized (recreational) marijuana. “But you don’t know what the ramifications of those states are,” he said.
“At this point it’s not a conservative or liberal issue. It’s an issue,” he said.
Mark Halla, CEO of The Mustard Seed landscaping in Chanhassen, is open to the idea of marijuana legalization.
“I’ve come full circle on my opinion,” said Halla. His change of heart is due to his son, a cannabis sales director in Colorado, where recreational use is legal.
Halla notes recreational usage comes with problems like other drugs, such as alcohol or tobacco. “I personally think alcohol is much more harmful to our society,” he notes.
He also believes that soon it will be legalized on a national level. States that legalize marijuana “are going to be on the ground floor for something that’s going to be legal at some point,” he said.
At a recent town hall meeting, Jensen asked the 150 participants if legislators should have a serious discussion about legalizing marijuana. He said that 90 percent of the crowd raised their hands. When asked for “no” votes, he said only five or six hands went up.
Jensen said he’s been getting some heat for co-sponsoring the bill, but is getting used to political flack.
Jensen gets a reality check while working as a doctor and treating seriously ill patients.
“It’s not cancer,” he said. “It’s just a difference of opinion.”