Brooks: What does a marijuana legalization third party do in a state that’s about to legalize marijuana?
"Legal Marijuana Now" read the signs outside the Minnesota Legislature the day after the vote to legalize marijuana.
The state's last major-party cannabis party had scheduled a rally in St. Paul for the last weekend of April. In the days leading up to it, the state House voted to legalize marijuana, followed by the state Senate. The rally turned into a celebration and the celebration turned into a question.
What happens to the Legal Marijuana Now Party in a state that voted for legal marijuana yesterday?
"There are a lot of people like you asking the question, 'Gee, now that it's legal, are you guys going to go away?' " said Dennis Schuller, who has run for office three times — Congress, U.S. Senate and Minnesota House — on the Legal Marijuana Now ticket.
There were speeches and musical performances by Paul Metsa and Kung Fu Hippies. The weather was bad and the crowd was small, but Schuller said one young supporter sought him out.
"He said, 'Hey, thank you for changing things for our generation,' " Schuller said. "That's awesome."
There have been cannabis third-parties on the ballot in Minnesota for four decades. Year after year, they pushed for a cause that seemed like the longest of long-shots in a state where you can't even buy wine in the grocery store.
Long before most states launched medical cannabis programs, they advocated for cancer patients who just wanted access to a drug that could ease the nausea of chemotherapy. While America fought the war on drugs, they focused on the lives blighted by long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes.
"I hope we were speaking for people who couldn't speak," said Schuller, who watched marijuana shift from a fringe issue to mainstream political plank. "People who were sick, people who had a professional career and were nervous to speak about it."
The cannabis parties got votes. Enough votes to qualify both Legal Marijuana Now and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party as major parties for a time.
They never pulled enough votes to win a race. But sometimes a marijuana candidate brought in enough votes to tilt a close race from the DFL to the GOP. There have been accusations for years that Republican operatives would recruit third-party challengers to siphon away votes.
In 2020, a cannabis candidate in the race for Minnesota's First Congressional District received 21,000 votes. The Democratic candidate lost that race by 13,400 votes.
The Second Congressional District has been thrown into chaos for two consecutive elections by cannabis party candidates on the ballot who died just before Election Day.
"The DFL is highly motivated to take away the issue that the cannabis parties have been running on," said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.
Democrats started this legislative session with a very slim majority and very long to-do lists. Legalizing marijuana probably wouldn't have been at the top of those lists, Jacobs said, if the 2024 elections hadn't been looming with the possibility of cannabis candidates on the ballot.
"I think if you asked most DFLers, particularly at the Capitol, 'What are your top issues?' cannabis is not going to be in the top three. Probably not in the top five," Jacobs said. "I think if you asked them and their constituents what their top issues are, they would list things like abortion, equity issues, the environment."
Minnesota's cannabis parties may go the way of Minnesota suffragists after women earned the right to vote.
When you fight for a cause, sometimes you win.
The Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party lost its major-party status last year, when none of its candidates earned more than 5% of the vote.
Schuller isn't quite sure legal marijuana will be the end for Legal Marijuana Now. He's waiting for the House and Senate to reconcile their bills. He's waiting for the governor to sign it into law. He's waiting for all the new opportunities that may open up for Minnesota hemp farmers and small businesses.
He's thinking about federal prohibition. He's eyeing another run for the U.S. Senate.