With legalization of marijuana, will it become normalized?

Published 6:00 pm Friday, May 26, 2023

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Local leaders weigh-in on positives and negatives of law

Recreational marijuana use will now be legal starting Aug. 1 in Minnesota, with adults over 21 able to legally own up to 2 pounds of the cannabis flower at home and up to 2 ounces in public, pending Gov. Tim Walz’s signature on a bill passed by the Minnesota Senate. Not two weeks old, the bill is already drawing debate.

Individual rights or the greater good?

Jerry Collins, co-owner of Big Dream Organics, felt the move was “about time,” and argued cannabis should never have been made illegal.
“There are an awful lot of people all over the country, all over the world, for thousands of years, that have benefited from cannabis consumption,” he said, noting he spoke with local, county and state law enforcement.

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And a common theme he heard from them: They did not experience violence from cannabis-consumers, something they did encounter with people who consumed alcohol or narcotics.

Jerry Collins was happy Minnesota is set to legalize marijuana, but felt a two-pound limit for growing marijuana was too restrictive. Collins and his wife are co-owners of Big Dream Organics. Alex Guerrero/Albert Lea Tribune

Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, on the other hand, argued the right thing was decriminalization without normalization. She had concerns and felt this was not the right bill, specifically legalizing recreational marijuana.

And while she said it did improve in terms of local control, Bennett was worried about road safety and wanted to see a road-side test determining if a driver was impaired, the same as with alcohol.

“We have issues already with distracted driving and driving under the influence,” she said. “When you have another step to this with the cannabis being legalized and more people driving impaired with that as well, then we should have a way to test that.”

Collins said there was a concern from law enforcement regarding people operating cars while under the influence with the lack of roadside testing. Freeborn County Sheriff Ryan Shea said other states had seen an increase in impaired drivers and crashes.

And while he said there were people the bill would benefit, he felt the timing was off, and said the bill might have been rushed in the session.

He also worried about the fact that there currently was no field sobriety test in Minnesota to determine a driver’s impairment from THC.

“The only thing we’ve had in Minnesota is we can send the blood or urine to the BCA, and they can give you a read-out of how much THC is in their system,” he said, noting THC could stay in a person’s system for more than a few hours and well after the drug was no longer an impairment.

Currently, Minnesota uses a standard field sobriety test, meaning a person could refuse the request. At that point officers would only have the observations they’ve made, including if a person could stand on their own, if their eyes were bloodshot, if there was slurred speech or if they had limited balance.

Fragrance was also difficult in determining usage, and Shea said there could be people who smelled like marijuana who were simply around the plant (i.e. children whose parents used marijuana).

“Then you’re placing the blame on the wrong person,” he said.

Not having a standard for impairment concerned Bennett, as well as not including a potency cap.

“Marijuana today is way different than marijuana a generation ago,” she said. “It’s much more potent, and therefore more harmful.”

Collins said he believed alcohol was more damaging, and thought it was unreasonable there should be a limit on the amount of cannabis a person could own while not being limited in the amount of liquor a person could have in their house or vehicle.

“For some that may be OK for those limits, but for others it may not be an appropriate amount,” he said. “I don’t know why there are those limits on cannabis when we don’t put those same limitations on things like tobacco and alcohol.”

“That doesn’t mean that alcohol is right,” Shea said, adding that alcohol played a prominent role in cases he’s dealt with, and that alcohol exacerbated other problems.

Would legalizing marijuana be normalizing it?

Shea also feared marijuana use could also exacerbate situations, and that marijuana-related issues would become more prevalent in the general public.

“It’s not going to be the person who smokes responsibly at home,” he said. “… There’s going to be people who have problems with it and who abuse it and who create problems for other people because they’re using marijuana.

“We get that with alcohol.”

Having a marijuana tax was an issue for Collins, and he said he thought adding such a high tax compared to the alcohol tax served as a way for legislators to get more money. At the same time, he said the tax in Minnesota would still be one of the lowest in the country for any state that legalized marijuana.

“We did liquor with no additional tax above our standard tax rate for decades,” he said, and hoped money generated from the high tax would be used to generate good things.

The bill would appropriate $15 million in the 2024-’25 biennium to the Office of Traffic Safety to help train drug recognition evaluators, with $2.6 million in the biennium funding a roadside testing project.

Bennett was also worried about business liability and knowing if employees were impaired, and wanted protection for businesses for liability issues.

Shea extended that idea to factory workers, equipment operators and medical professionals.

“Alcohol is one thing, you can smell alcohol on somebody’s breath so you can have a good idea if they’re impaired by alcohol,” he said. “What about THC?

“… Are you dealing with somebody that’s high or are you dealing with somebody that has a head injury or medical issue when they’re stumbling?”

Bennett also worried about children, specifically the idea of normalizing marijuana.

“More teens, more kids are going to be using it, and it’s incredibly detrimental to brain development, that’s a proven fact,” she said. “Up until age 25 actually cannabis permanently hurts and harms brain development.”

Shea added to the idea, saying people who self-medicated with marijuana weren’t helping any problems they had. He was also concerned that for those who grew their own marijuana any children would have access to it and could unintentionally try it and end up in a hospital.

“There’s going to be accidental ingestion by other kids with the gummies because I see that becoming a larger industry in Minnesota than it currently is,” he said.

Collins suggested one use for funds generated by the tax could be used to educate others about cannabis use and prevent overconsumption.

To that effect, having a disclaimer on every package was also something Bennett would like to see.

And she was concerned about increases in traffic accidents and homelessness.

Counselors she spoke with told her marijuana use could become a gateway drug for other, harder ones.

“I’ve seen it where people have started with marijuana and started turning to heavier ones after that,” Shea said.

Shea said there was also an increase in suicides and mental illness among people who had marijuana in their systems.

“I don’t want to say that all that stuff is tied to marijuana, but I would say that it plays a role in that,” he said.

That said, Bennett knew some people wanted to legalize it, as marijuana was already used to treat some medical conditions, including epilepsy. She also agreed it was appropriate to decriminalize small amounts.

Collins called expungement and sealing regarding cannabis convictions for nonviolent offenders a “big positive.”

“That gives [employers] the ability to hire a bunch of people that maybe some businesses would have overlooked because of a minor cannabis conviction,” he said.

Speaking with local law enforcement, Bennett said officers said it would be nice not having to deal with some marijuana issues.

Pushing the boundaries

For her though, marijuana was pushing the boundary on the other side of the line in terms of what types of drugs should be regulated, adding that legalizing marijuana would “not stop the black market” on marijuana distribution.

“I think there’s a point where you say ‘No, you don’t use that,’” she said. “As a society we can’t just say, ‘Let’s just legalize every drug because they’re going to use it anyway.’”

Shea agreed, and said there had been an increase in the black market among states that legalized recreational marijuana.

Collins described the capstone limit for how much marijuana a person can own as “arbitrary” numbers, and believed perfect legislation would mean no legislation, completely decriminalizing marijuana. At the same time, he admitted that option was never a possibility.

In the meantime, his business is at a crossroads regarding what to do: Move into the marijuana space as licensing became available or remain in the hemp-derived space.

Personally, he said he thought there should be either industrial cannabis or health and wellness/recreational cannabis.

Currently, marijuana dispensaries are divided into two categories: Medical and recreational use. Collins was skeptical more medical dispensaries would appear, noting the current ones had the market “locked down” in Minnesota.

“I think you will see a pretty large influx of adult, recreational use marijuana dispensaries,” he said.

He also argued the war on drugs was “an abysmal failure” and thought cannabis should never have been labeled a Schedule 1 narcotic. Schedule 1 narcotics include cocaine and heroin.

“A lot of people have been harmed with cannabis convictions for using a plant that, in reality, is very beneficial to a lot of people,” he said.

At the same time, he admitted no bill would have been perfect at its inception.

In the meantime, Shea said his department will have to get a new drug dog. Canines certified in detecting cannabis would have to be retired.

He also questioned how smoking provided more benefits than medical cannabis or edibles, which are currently legal in Minnesota.

Bennett herself knew someone whose life was affected by marijuana.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.