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Majority leader says legal weed likely to be voted down in state Senate

Paul Gazelka

Talks of legal recreational cannabis are swirling around St. Paul—particularly, three separate bills to legalize weed being hashed out in the state Legislature, with a fourth in the works.

Consider state Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, as a no on that count—and he's not alone, he told the Dispatch, one voice among a number of Republicans and DFLers who have expressed misgivings about legalizing recreational weed.

"I am open to having a hearing and work through the process, but the more data I find, personally, the more I'm opposed to it," said Gazelka during a phone interview Wednesday, Jan. 30. He pointed to reports of rising homelessness and vehicle crash rates in states that legalized weed.

There's enough bipartisan opposition for legalization to die on the Senate floor, he added—at least this session.

Gazelka said it's counterintuitive to pass bills to ramp up efforts against the opioid epidemic, as well as other legislation to curb driving distracted with cellular devices, if lawmakers are going to turn around and legalize a drug that drives mental health issues, increased automotive collisions, addiction, labor force shortages, and other negative societal effects.

He noted he's not familiar enough with the research to say whether widespread marijuana use—in terms of addiction and potential for overdoses—is on par with opioids, which includes fentanyl, heroin and morphine.

"I haven't seen enough statistics on the matter to lean one way or another on that subject," Gazelka said.

As a matter of civil liberties—a la, allowing individuals to purchase substances, including tobacco and alcohol, despite a bevy of known detrimental effects associated with both—Gazelka said it's a matter of comparing apples to oranges.

While cannabis and alcohol, for example, are both substances with psychotropic properties, Gazelka said, alcohol is typically more measurable and displays a shorter time frame of inhibitive effects, while weed is typically more potent and lingers longer in the body.

"With alcohol, you can have a glass of wine, a beer or even two, and it doesn't affect your driving and doesn't really affect your life," Gazelka said. "One joint of weed is going to make you high. One glass of wine is not. To me, they're not measuring the same thing."

In addition, Gazelka said he does not see a government revenue benefit, by taxing cannabis sales, that could justify legalization and its side effects—but, he reaffirmed he's open to a discussion by lawmakers and Minnesotans on the matter to explore it fully.

"I'm open to the conversation because I want the people of Minnesota and my district to process through the same things I have," Gazelka added. "I don't think this is the best thing for Minnesota."

Multiple marijuana bills

Currently, lawmakers are mulling three bills to potentially legalize recreational cannabis, while a fourth is being formulated.

• Minnesotans would vote during a public referendum in 2020 to legalize weed with a proposal from state Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis.

• State Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, produced a bill to put legalization on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in 2020. The bill does stipulate the state Legislature would first approve a detailed proposal for voters to consider.

• A bill to legalize and regulate recreational weed under the banner of the state Legislature has been sponsored by state Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, and state Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina. In the bill, past convictions for nonviolent weed-related offenses could also be expunged.

• In addition, a fourth bill in the works would have the state Legislature legalize and regulate the drug. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, is working with advocates on a bill that she may not sponsor herself.

The issue has been coming to the fore for some time, but it gained some momentum in Minnesota when then Gov.-elect Tim Walz said he's in favor of legalizing recreational pot in late November—a sign of approval from the state's chief executive and a break with his fellow Democrat, former Gov. Mark Dayton, who opposed legalization.

Recreational pot is legal in 10 states and in Washington, D.C. A total of 33 states, including Minnesota, allow medical marijuana. Legal recreational weed has had a mixed reception in the Midwest in 2018—a year that saw Michigan legalize it through a ballot measure, while North Dakota voters struck it down.

Among the first states of the union to legalize recreational marijuana, Colorado saw its cannabis industry in 2017 generate more than $1 billion in sales and $200 million in tax revenue.

This money, diverted from the "Marijuana Tax Cash Fund," has been used to fund school lunches, mental health care, drug addiction treatment, housing programs and other initiatives across the state.

Reaching a verdict

• Automotive safety has factored in the discussion. According to research between 2012 and 2018 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute, the frequency of collision claims filed to insurers were higher in four states where marijuana is legal—namely, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Researchers compared the results of these states against four control states where marijuana remains illegal: Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.

• A separate study—conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety focused on police-reported crashes before and after retail marijuana was allowed in Colorado, Oregon and Washington—saw a 5.2 percent increase in the rate of crashes per million vehicle registrations, compared with neighboring states.

Although, the studies noted, THC (the principal psychoactive compound in cannabis) can be detected for days, weeks or longer periods of time after initial consumption and long after the substance has any affect on a person's physical abilities or mental acuity. Thus, it's difficult to pinpoint just how much legalized cannabis use is directly correlated to these collisions.

• Marijuana use has been linked to spikes in psychiatric disorders—particularly for certain subsets of the population with a genetic proclivity—such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, according to separate studies by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the International Review of Psychiatry.

While a 2017 report by the National Council for Behavioral Health indicated there was no increase in the number of people who sought treatment for cannabis addiction after legalization in Colorado, money spent on law enforcement and social services to address mental health issues increased after legalization—to the tune of $23 million in Pueblo County, Colo., for example, where the population is about 160,000.

However, according to the study conducted by Colorado State University-Pueblo, the county also took in $58 million in taxed marijuana sales during that time frame, essentially paying for these services and further garnering a $35 million net gain.

• In terms of adolescent usage, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health—an annual nationwide survey—teen marijuana use declined in all but one of the five states that had legal weed from 2014 to 2016.

However, usage among young adults, ages 18-25, increased during that time frame.

• Marijuana legalization has been linked to decreases in crime. According to a June 2017 study in the Economic Journal, there are indications violent crimes and associated deaths decreased in states bordering Mexico on account of decreased demand for the illicit marijuana trade with Mexican cartels.

According to a study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization in February 2018, legalized pot in Washington coincided with a notable decrease in violent and property crimes in the state in comparison to neighboring Oregon, where pot was still illegal at the time. The same study indicated, while marijuana consumption rose, binge-drinking alcohol and consumption of other "hard" drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin decreased.