Minnesota Votes to Legalize Marijuana as Democrats Press Liberal Policies

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota lawmakers on Friday voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana, the latest in a string of policy moves to the left after Democrats took full control of the Statehouse after nine years of divided government.

Despite having only a one-seat majority in Minnesota’s Senate, Democrats have moved swiftly to push through a pile of liberal legislation that made this year’s lawmaking session among the most productive and polarizing in recent history.

Minnesota legislators have codified abortion rights, funded school meals for all children, set a goal to transition entirely to clean energy by 2040 and allowed unauthorized immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

Lawmakers expanded voting rights by allowing an estimated 55,000 felons the ability to cast ballots and by automatically registering people to vote when they get a driver’s license or sign up for government programs.

Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat who took office in 2019, called the legislative season a transformative moment for Minnesotans and has portrayed the state as a refuge for people who have lost rights in Republican-led states.

This week, Mr. Walz signed into law measures granting legal protections to people who travel to Minnesota to get abortions and to transgender youth seeking the kind of transition care Republican legislatures are attempting to ban in much of the country.

“We are now an island of decency,” Mr. Walz, who is expected to sign the bill legalizing recreational marijuana, said in an interview. “This is a place where you can be who you are without fear.”

Republican leaders in the state described the laws Democrats have passed as extreme, fiscally irresponsible and largely unwise. Democrats, they say, should have taken advantage of Minnesota’s $17 billion budget surplus to significantly cut taxes. Instead, they say, the Democrats ramped up government spending, making the state less business friendly.

“The things that they’re doing are way outside of the mainstream of where Minnesota is politically,” David Hann, the chairman of the state’s Republican Party, said. “They have governed as if this is a left-wing society, which it isn’t.”

Minnesota is widely seen as a purple state. Democrats and Republicans have often shared power in the state capital in recent years. For decades, Democrats have won presidential races in the state, though former President Donald J. Trump lost only narrowly in 2016. The state’s congressional delegation includes four Republicans and four Democrats.

Mr. Hann, a longtime Minnesota lawmaker, called the current session the most acrimonious and least bipartisan in decades. He predicted that Democrats will face a backlash the next time voters go to the polls.

In the remaining weeks of the legislative session, which ends May 22, Democrats say they expect to pass laws tightening gun regulations and guaranteeing paid family leave.

The legislature Minnesotans elected last year is by far the most diverse in history; for the first time, women lead both the House and the Senate.

The senate majority leader, Kari Dziedzic, has worked from home for much of the session because she was recovering from surgery for ovarian cancer; the work, she said, went right on.

“When we were on the campaign trail, we heard from Minnesotans and they told us they were tired of gridlock,” she said. “So we came ready to work on Day 1.”

Legalizing marijuana for adults to use recreationally had long been an elusive goal for Democrats in Minnesota. The new measure will vastly expand a nascent cannabis marketplace; last July, the Legislature legalized edibles and beverages containing a small amount of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The state joins 22 others that have legalized cannabis for recreational use in recent years, though Minnesota’s legislation has unique features.

The bill Senate Democrats passed on Friday includes provisions that will expunge the criminal records of tens of thousands of people previously charged with marijuana misdemeanors. The bill also funds substance abuse and law enforcement programs.

It establishes a state agency tasked with gradually phasing out the underground market by issuing licenses to local growers and giving priority to people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses and to those who live in communities where marijuana laws have been disproportionately enforced.

“We know the war on drugs, and cannabis prohibition in particular, has been a failure,” and that it caused great harm to communities of color, said Representative Jessica Hanson, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill in the House. “It was really important to Minnesotans and the cannabis community to keep that at the forefront.”

Senator Carla Nelson, a Republican, said the bill is misguided on several fronts. She said it creates a new and onerous bureaucracy, may normalize the use of a drug among young people struggling with mental health issues and could make roads less safe.

“It just does not do enough on substance abuse prevention,” she said. “It’s just not the right time.”

Senators approved the cannabis bill Friday afternoon with 34 votes, none of them from Republicans. It will be reconciled with a similar House bill passed earlier in the week, then sent to the governor’s desk.

In the remaining weeks of the session, Democrats say they hope to pass universal background checks for gun purchases and a so-called red flag law, which would allow a judge to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed risks to themselves and others, based on petitions by family or law enforcement officials.

Mr. Walz said lawmakers also hope to pass mandates for paid medical and family leave, which would mean increasing payroll taxes.

He said he doubted that Democrats will face a backlash over the set of new policies. Instead, he predicted that voters will punish leaders in Republican-held states that have pressed to limit abortion rights and ban treatment for transgender minors.

“There is no way in this country that reducing rights as opposed to expanding them has ever been an electoral winner,” he said. “It’s not going to work.”

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