Will legalization of pot in S.D. waft to Minnesota?

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While we were watching other elections, voters in South Dakota legalized marijuana.

What will that mean for Minnesota?

In Rock County, Minn., close to the South Dakota border, bemused officials took in the news.

“It was a shocker,” said Rock County Sheriff Evan Verbrugge. “I think everybody in this area was really surprised that South Dakota voted this way before Minnesota.”

That’s pot politics. Lots of issues split along partisan lines — blue against red, liberal against conservative, us against them — but not marijuana. Never marijuana.

President Donald Trump won 61% of the vote in South Dakota, while 54% of South Dakotans voted for full legalization of recreational and medical marijuana. Montana, Arizona and New Jersey legalized last week, bringing the number of full legalization states to 15. Voters in Mississippi legalized medical marijuana. There are Republicans who support full legalization; there are Democrats who staunchly oppose it.

 
JOE AHLQUIST, ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2015 file photo, Jonathan Hunt, vice president of Monarch America, Inc., shows a marijuana plant while giving a tour of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe's marijuana growing facility, in Flandreau, S.D. Voters in four states could embrace broad legal marijuana sales on Election Day, setting the stage for a watershed year for the industry that could snowball into neighboring states as well as reshape policy on Capitol Hill. The Nov. 3, 2020, contests will take place in markedly different regions of the country, New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota and Montana and approval of the proposals would highlight how public acceptance of cannabis is cutting across geography, demographics and the nation's deep political divide.

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South Dakota voters made their choice. What does it mean for Minnesota? Not a lot. Not right away.

It will be months before the ballot initiative becomes law and at least 2022 before the state hammers out the rules and regulations for a new industry and prepares to collect the new 15% cannabis tax.

Verbrugge isn’t expecting much trouble. “It’s still illegal in the state of Minnesota,” he said. “We might end up picking up a few more people, but it’s not going to be any more than what we’re currently doing.”

If Minnesota’s marijuana laws are going to change, that change is going to have to come out of St. Paul. The last big change lawmakers made was in 2014, when they legalized medical cannabis and crafted the nation’s most restrictive, least accessible, most expensive, least profitable cannabis business.

Over the years, some restrictions have eased. Getting into the program is easier now; the number of clinics in the state has expanded from eight, and each year the Health Department adds new qualifying conditions. By December, the state will decide whether anxiety should be a new qualifying condition.

“Everyone is just completely overwhelmed, between the pandemic and the election,” said Maren Schroeder, policy director and co-founder of Sensible Change Minnesota, an advocacy group that helped push medical cannabis into law in this state. “Adding to the noise is just not our style.”

But advocates hope lawmakers are open to tweaks in existing law, such as allowing patients legal access to cannabis in its plant form, not just processed into more expensive pills, pastes and oils.

“It would be a third the cost,” said Dr. Kyle Kingsley, head of Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of two companies allowed to grow and sell medical cannabis in this state. Minnesota’s cannabis is so restricted and expensive that MinnMed has yet to turn a profit, subsidized instead by its parent company’s businesses in other states. Legalizing the sale of raw cannabis flower, he said, “would make a big run at the really massive black market in the state.”

That raises a cautionary point for anyone planning a run for the border once South Dakota opens for cannabis business. Minnesota has decriminalized possession of small quantities of the raw plant, but penalties for concentrated cannabis can be much more severe.

“Our criminal laws don’t match our medical laws,” Schroeder said. “Medical laws say, ‘You can’t have flower, it’s bad.’ But our criminal laws are the opposite. ‘Oh, flower? We’re not worried about that, but those concentrates, those are going to get you locked up.’ ”

If Minnesota did want to follow South Dakota’s lead, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, has had a bipartisan legalization bill ready to go for years.

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