Pot Matters: Minnesota Maverick Pushes Legalization Platform in Special Election

Legal Marijuana Now is both a campaign slogan and the name of a political party in Minnesota advancing another model for getting the legalization issue before state legislatures.

A member of the party, Zach Phelps, is seeking election in a February 9 special election for a vacant District 35 State Senate seat in the Minnesota legislature. Minnesota does not utilize voter-initiated ballot measures and cannot enact legalization by popular vote. Minnesota voters can nominate candidates for the legislature by way of petition, and this is how Phelps secured a place on the ballot. Given low voter turnout in special elections, there is a great opportunity for motivated local voters to prevail.

The Legal Marijuana Now party is a successor to the Grassroots Party and is a recognized minor party under Minnesota law. The party ran Jack Herer as their presidential candidate in 1988 and 1992. Their candidate for attorney general received 57,000 votes in 2014, mainly on the strength of their name, which appears on the ballot.

Marijuana is decriminalized in Minnesota, and the state has a medical marijuana program which, according to Legal Marijuana Now only provides access to about five percent of all patients.

A victory in this special election would increase attention to legalization issues in the state, as would Phelps’ legislative agenda. Phelps intends to push for marijuana legalization in Minnesota if elected, and highlights its medical use, safety compared to alcohol and tobacco, and economic benefits to the state in his platform.

The political class and the two party system has been resistant to providing leadership for legalization efforts. 

The successful use of the initiative system in many states to enact legalization measures also validates the need to find other ways to bypass local political structures. Third party candidates often fail, but even electoral failure can influence the positions and platforms of other candidates and of the primary political parties. Third party candidates mobilize voter support for specific issues, and other candidates migrate toward these issues in order to increase their own political and electoral support.

Minnesota should be a receptive state to the legalization of cannabis. 

About 12.3 percent of Minnesota’s voters (those 18 and older) use marijuana on a monthly basis. The state’s voters are generally liberal, frequently voting Democratic in presidential elections. In addition to marijuana decriminalization laws and their medical marijuana program, Minnesota has a long standing preference of using alternatives to incarceration in their criminal justice system.

But in order to get the state to discuss and consider legalization, the issue has to be brought before the legislature.  \

Lobbying by citizens, activists, and advocacy groups is one way to do this. Getting a legislator elected who is dedicated to pushing the issue within the statehouse is another—and perhaps equally effective. Lobbyists come and go, colleagues are not only present, their votes are needed.

Legalization has become a hot topic. Initiatives have created a lot of momentum, and the advocacy groups making these electoral victories happen deserve a great deal of credit and gratitude from legalization supporters around the country. These great efforts, though, should be a call to action, especially in states where the initiative process is not available.

Zach Phelps’ candidacy is a great example of taking advantage of opportunities to push for legalization. 

It’s creative and resourceful and demonstrates leadership at the local level. There’s a lot to learn here for legalization supporters throughout the country. If state legislators won’t consider marijuana legalization, it’s a good idea to find ways to get new state legislators.

Supporters for marijuana legalization need to advance the issue through both conventional and unconventional means—this means lobbying, working for supportive candidates and running for office themselves.

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