There was a time when Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature talked about individual liberty. They pooh-poohed what they derided as Minnesota’s “nanny state,” which they blamed on our DFL-dominated state politics.
Well, who are the nannies now?
The most significant personal liberty bill to come up in St. Paul in the past few years was the measure to end the legal prohibition on the adult use of marijuana. It shouldn’t even have been controversial. Recent statewide polls have demonstrated that Minnesota has experienced the same sea change in attitudes about pot that have been seen elsewhere in the country. Clear majorities of Minnesotans now accept the common-sense realization that prohibition rarely works and that the efforts to impose such policies are ultimately detrimental to society. A party that actually believes its rhetoric about personal liberty would recognize that fact.
Instead, it was DFL lawmakers who voted for personal liberty in St. Paul this session. The DFL-controlled House passed a full legalization measure, which DFL Gov. Tim Walz was ready to sign. But the GOP-controlled state Senate said no.
The Legislature did expand the definition of medical marijuana to allow the use of the smoked product, which is more affordable for patients. That’s a step forward, but under what rational reason does any lawmaker justify continuing prohibition for adults without medical conditions?
The downsides of prohibition should be obvious to all. Prohibition shifts commerce to the dark undersides of society, fueling the rise of gangs and gang violence in the process. This was as true in the 1920s, during the bootlegging era, as it is a century later. Hard-earned tax dollars go for law enforcement and corrections, rather than for treatment of those who need help with addiction, including to the most common addictive drug of all— alcohol. And, since we know that the hammer of law enforcement falls heaviest on people of color, we know those communities will bear the greatest burden from the family disruption and break-up that invariably comes with prosecution and prison.
These are heavy costs to impose on society, particularly when it is to no apparent end. In addition to all of its costs to society, we know that prohibition simply doesn’t work. Drug use of all kinds in the United States has increased steadily since the beginning of the so-called War on Drugs back in the 1960s. As major public policy, there are few examples in American history with a sorrier record of failure and harm.
What’s more, by shifting the sale of products to the black market, society loses out on the tax revenue such sales could otherwise provide to the state treasury. Taxing the legal sale of marijuana in Minnesota could generate hundreds of millions of dollars. Last year, for example, Colorado, with only a slightly larger population than Minnesota, brought in more than $387 million in taxes and fees from marijuana sales. Those are big numbers. Add in the savings from law enforcement and prisons from all the users and dealers who are no longer violating the law, and the financial windfall is even larger.
The logic of legalization is so obvious, one wonders if the GOP has other objectives. As we reported following the 2020 election, the popularity of pro-legalization parties in Minnesota likely impacted a handful of legislative races, in the GOP’s favor. As we’ve since learned, GOP operatives helped some pro-legalization candidates qualify for ballot access and fundraise, in hopes they would siphon enough likely DFL voters away to edge out victories in closely divided districts. Such dirty tricks appear to have made the difference in a couple of districts, potentially just enough to keep the Senate in Republican hands.
Voters who backed those parties may have thought they were furthering their interest in legalization, but by tossing their votes away on spoilers, they actually helped elect candidates who oppose their goal of legalization. The political reality is now clear. If voters support legalization, they can only achieve that by electing DFLers to the Legislature and a DFL governor. That’s something to keep in mind next year, following redistricting, when all of the state’s legislative seats are up for grabs.