State Rep. Ryan Winker brought his Be Heard on Cannabis listening tour to Rochester on Saturday, making a case that regulating an unregulated, black market industry would give the state better control over who does and doesn't use marijuana. 

Acknowledging that the topic of legalizing marijuana for recreational use is a controversial topic, Winkler said, "We don’t have to win an argument here today. We just have to make sure everyone has a chance to speak their minds."

Joined by Tina Liebling and Duane Sauke, both DFL representatives from Rochester, and Maren Schroeder, a policy analyst for Sensible MN, a medical marijuana advocacy group, Winkler began the meeting by outlining what he sees as the four main issues surrounding cannabis in Minnesota. Those issues include criminal justice inequality, law enforcement concerns, youth access to marijuana and helping veterans get prescriptions for marijuana. 

Medical marijuana is legal in Minnesota, though advocates say those who get prescriptions still have barriers to access including limited dispensaries across the state and higher prices for medical marijuana than are found in other states or on the street, Schroeder said. 

Citing information from Colorado and Washington, Winkler said legalizing cannabis for recreational use in Minnesota would reduce underage usage of the drug, correct the unequal treatment of minorities by the criminal justice system and help free up law enforcement for other tasks rather than marijuana crimes. 

"We spend $40-60 million a year to enforce cannabis laws in Minnesota," Winkler said. "Our criminal justice system is pursuing prosecution for a product most people think should be made available."

On the subject of youth access, Winkler said marijuana usage rates among youth already mirror the rates for other legalized drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. 

"Cannabis is already widely available for teens," he said. "Washington and Colorado have found legalization has reduced youth usage."

Talking Pot Troubles

Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson took issue with some of the information presented by Winkler. 

Torgerson said law enforcement in Minnesota has concerns about legalization for recreational use. Those include everything from the lack of a roadside test to judge whether a driver is under the influence of marijuana, increased youth access to marijuana and more resources — not less, as Winkler indicated — being required to deal with users of all ages. 

"Not too many weeks ago, 77,000 cartridges of cannabis were seized by law enforcement in Minnesota," Torgerson said.

Those cartridges, he said, can be swapped for nicotine cartridges in Juul vaping devices. "These are targeted toward kids. It's the same as Gummi bears and popsicles. It’s a significant issue because kids know how to get a hold of these things like they get a hold of tobacco."

While everyone who spoke agreed that keeping cannabis from children is important — several people cited studies showing cannabis can negatively impact developing brains – Ray Hicks said making access easier for teens can lead them to more dangerous drugs. 

Hicks said his son, Jay Hicks, died of a fentanyl overdose at the age of 21 last June. His drug use began with marijuana before escalating. 

"It started with cannabis," Hicks said. "It’s a gateway drug. I strongly believe that."

In his own case, he said, when he and his wife tried to talk to their son about his drug use, he pointed to their infrequent use of alcohol as a reason he shouldn't have to stop using drugs.

"What you legalize for adulthood, children will want," Hicks said. "It matters what we model before our youth. We go down this path, there’s going to be more losses.”

Cannabis Benefits

Even opponents to recreational legalization said they supported improving access for medical uses of cannabis. 

Several medical use advocates in the audience spoke, including a woman named Diane, who said her daughter uses cannabis to combat PTSD symptoms. Her daughter, who suffers from night terrors and often wakes up with bruises, never drank alcohol or used tobacco, and was at first reluctant to use cannabis. 

Now, however, her daughter is herself again.

"I've been in recovery for over 30 years," Diane said, referring to past issues with substance abuse. "I can’t do it, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t do it."

Patrick McClellan, an advocate who works with Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, said studies have shown that medical marijuana can be used to help ween people from opioids and antipsychotics when those individuals have become addicted to those drugs.

Continued Listening

Winkler, who serves as the House Majority Leader, said the stop in Rochester was the 11th of a 15-city tour to hear what Minnesotans think about legalization of marijuana for recreational use. 

While Saturday's panel included only DFL members of the Legislature, Winkler said the idea has both "bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition."

He hopes to show Minnesotans that by regulating marijuana usage, the state can use the tax money from legalization to educate people on the harms and benefits of the drug while also making it easier and cheaper for people with legitimate prescriptions to use cannabis for therapeutic purposes.

And while he hopes to bring a bill into the 2020 session to at least study legalization, Winkler said the Republican-led Senate might be a barrier.

Torgerson said he was glad to be having the conversation about cannabis, though he felt the panel was a little one-sided.

“It’d be nice if you asked someone from law enforcement or from the treatment community to be part of these,” he said.

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