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Local officials discuss potential impacts of marijuana legalization

Local leaders are taking a closer look at how recreational marijuana might impact communities as the nation’s trend toward adult-use legalization is forecasted to reach Minnesota in the coming years.

A bill to legalize recreational marijuana reached the floor of the Minnesota House for the first time in history last year. The legislation passed with a 72-61 vote, but the companion bill died in the Republican-controlled Senate.

State Rep. Jess Hanson, a first-term Democrat representing Savage and northwest Burnsville, is among the most vocal supporters of marijuana legalization at the Minnesota Capitol.

Hanson previously led the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization, a nonprofit advocacy group, and she’s spent time between sessions leading conversations on legalization with local elected officials and community members.

Hanson’s efforts are supported by Sen. Lindsey Port (DFL-Burnsville), who ousted the district’s longtime Republican senator, Dan Hall, in 2020.

Democratic state lawmakers in support of legalization envision creating a regulated marketplace to offer safe, legal access to marijuana while also addressing racial injustices found in the current system.

“The roots of prohibition have been, and still are, very deeply rooted in racism,” Hanson told the Burnsville City Council last month.

Black Minnesotans are over five times more likely to be arrested in connection with marijuana than white Minnesotans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Studies show both groups report using marijuana at similar rates.

While legalization is not expected to pass into law during this year’s session, a growing number of elected officials say legalization is likely inevitable in Minnesota.

Law enforcement response

For some local law enforcement officials, the growing political support toward recreational marijuana raises questions about how legalization may exacerbate challenges officers face in responding to impaired driving incidents and mental health calls.

Savage Police Chief Rodney Seurer said drug-use plays a major role in “skyrocketing” mental health calls in Scott County.

Seurer spoke on the topic last month during a Scott County Association for Leadership & Efficiency (SCALE) meeting.

“Our table is already full,” he said. “We’re responding to mental health calls for service and we don’t have the equipment or the education to respond to those, and now you would think about putting marijuana on the table? It’s a domino effect.”

House proposal

If passed, HF600 would allow anyone 21 or older to legally purchase and use marijuana in Minnesota.

The bill also outlines numerous legal limitations, such as the allowable amounts of THC in edible products and the amount of cannabis that could be kept in a home.

The bill’s supporters often highlight the impact of tax revenue generated from regulated retail sales, but opponents say legalization won’t eliminate a black market for cannabis products.

Provisions in the bill aimed at criminal justice reform include expungement of low-level criminal cannabis convictions and creation of an oversight board to review more serious offenses.

Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar also voiced his opposition to legalization at last month’s SCALE meeting.

“You make it acceptable,” he said. “It’s more acceptable to get high when you’re at home, it’s more acceptable to get high when you’re out with your friends, it’s more acceptable for you to get high in public.”

Prosecution of marijuana-related impaired driving incidents is also proving difficult, according to Hocevar.

“There really is no good way to test on the roadside for marijuana like there is for alcohol,” he said.

Seurer said legalization in Minnesota would create a need for additional resources, including training, officers, prosecutors, dispatchers and paramedics.

“It’s a domino effect,” he said, adding he’d rather see the cost associated with legalization go towards building more residential mental health treatment facilities instead.

Mental health

The Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness issued a statement last spring urging lawmakers to be cautious when considering the legalization of recreational cannabis.

While NAMI Minnesota’s letter supported expungement of low-level cannabis possession convictions and other provisions in the House bill, the organization also raised concern about connections between cannabis use and psychosis among young people.

For years, experts have stood apart on the role marijuana plays in alleviating or worsening symptoms of certain mental health disorders.

Last month, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm denied requests to list anxiety disorder and panic disorder as qualifying medical conditions under the state’s medical marijuana program.

Ultimately, Malcolm said the additions were not approved due to a lack of scientific evidence to support effectiveness as well as concerns expressed by health care practitioners.

Preparing for change

In an email to Southwest News Media, Carver County Sheriff Jason Kamerud said his stance on efforts to legalize adult-use marijuana depends on the purpose of the statute and its specific provisions.

He said the specifics of legalization, such as what tools will be made available to assist with impaired driving enforcement, will also drive what resources might be needed by law enforcement.

“As a general position, though, I do not support the legalization of recreational use of marijuana,” Kamerud wrote.

He cited data from Colorado indicating marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 41% in the first two years following legalization.

And, while he expects similar trends would follow legalization in Minnesota, he’s more optimistic about adapting to change.

“I continue to monitor the status of state and federal legislation that may impact marijuana businesses and criminal activities in an effort to be as reasonably prepared as possible,” he wrote. “So far I have not seen anything that leads me to believe we are not prepared for the challenge.”

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