Legalization Activists Gather at Minnesota State Capitol, April 2020, Curtesy of Michael Ford

While many people may not think of Minnesota as a hotbed of national cannabis activism, it was actually one of the first states to put cannabis legalization on the ballot.

Sort of.

Grassroots Activism

In 1986, a little over a decade after California became the first state to vote on cannabis legalization, the Grassroots Party was founded in Minnesota. Created by four cannabis activists (Oliver Steinberg, Derrick Grimmer, Tim Davis, and Chris Wright), the party was dedicated to ending drug prohibition throughout the country, the first of its kind.

Steinberg was quoted in the Star Tribune explaining that their movement “is not really an attempt to say we’re for drugs. But we’re against prohibition.”

Grimmer, then 39, became the first candidate to run on the Grassroots Party ticket in the 1986 election for Minnesota Attorney General. A senior physicist at 3M who received his Ph.D. from Washington University, Grimmer and the Grassroots Party for the first time put cannabis on the ballot in Minnesota. While Minnesotans were not voting for legalization directly, they were using their democratic power to show their support for legalization. More Minnesotans voted for Grimmer (16,394) than any other third-party candidate that election.

Grassroots Party Activists Protest at the Minnesota State Capitol, Courtesy of High Times, July 1990

After a less successful run in the 1988 election, a larger slate of Grassroots candidates ran in the 1990 midterm election and the 1992 presidential election. While a number of the candidates did well, Colleen Bonniwell ran for Minnesota Treasurer and secured almost 5% of the statewide vote.

Cannabis legend Jack Herer ran with Derrick Grimmer for the presidential ticket in the party’s first multi-state election, running in Minnesota and Iowa (Herer also ran in 1988, but only on the Minnesota ballot). 

The 1994 election for governor would be uninteresting, with incumbent Gov. Arne Carlson handedly winning a second term. This election would be important for legalization activists, however, with the Grassroots Party gaining national notoriety. During that election cycle, the party was able to get MTV to show a pot leaf during a political ad, as their “political speech” bypassed the network’s ban on the symbol.

Advertisement from High Times, April 1992

In 1996, there was a fracture in the community, leading to the formation of the Independent Grassroots Party. John Birrenbach ran with medical cannabis activist George McMahon for President while Dan Vacek ran for the House of Representatives.

The following election, 1998, the Independent Grassroots Party would be reformed as Legal Marijuana Now, a political party with a name that goes beyond implying their goals. That election, nearly 6,000 Minnesotans in the 4th Congressional District voted for Legal Marijuana Now.

After the 2000 election, both parties went quiet. No candidates ran for either party for a decade until Chris Wright, one of the founders of the Grassroots Party, ran for Governor in 2010. Following in the footsteps of Legal Marijuana Now, the Grassroots Party changed their name in 2014 to Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party, which they continue to use to this day.

Legalization on the Ballot?

When Colorado and Washington became the first states to pass cannabis legalization initiatives back in 2012, Minnesotans were asking “when can we vote on legalization?”

Unlike Colorado and Washington, Minnesota is not an initiative state, meaning that the public cannot petition the government to add a measure to the ballot. In both of those states, activists just needed to collect enough signatures and they could present a measure to the public for a vote. In Minnesota, both the State House and Senate need to pass a measure to add a question to the ballot.

After a number of failed attempts to legalize cannabis in Minnesota, legislators introduced HF 926 in 2017, a bill which would have proposed a constitutional amendment in Minnesota for the voters to voice their opinions on. While this measure did not gain the traction that some hoped for, it was one of the first times that Minnesotan Legislators attempted to return the power of cannabis legalization to the people.

Will similar measures have been introduced since 2017, it unlikely that legislators will attempt this method going forward, so while candidates from cannabis parties will continue to pop up on our ballots, it’s unlikely that outright legalization ever will.

Legal Marijuana Now Activists March at 2019 Mayday Parade, Courtesy of Dan Vacek/Legal Marijuana Now
Major Party Status

Prior to 2020, if a candidate wanted to run for political office under either party, they needed to collect a predetermined number of signatures to get on the ballot. That all changed in 2018 when both legalization parties obtained major party status, putting them on equal footing with the DFL and GOP, at least in the Secretary of State’s office. Michael Ford (Legal Marijuana Now) and Noah Johnson (Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis) both received over 5% of the statewide vote, pushing their parties forward.

This shift in party status led to an explosion in candidates filling across the state in 2020 with more candidates running for both parties this year that any prior. This triumph for the movement has led to some unintended electoral consequences.

Candidates from both parties have been hounded with allegations of being political props meant to shift votes away from the DFL. For example, in an article shared by Legal Marijuana Now MN’s Facebook page, party spokesman Dennis Schuller says that the party has been unable to contact Jaden Partlow, a candidate for office is St. Cloud (destined to be a close race this election). The party has not officially endorsed Partlow, but his name does appear on the ballot representing the party.

Voicemails from a now-deceased candidate for office in Minnesota’s 2nd District obtained by the Star Tribune detail that he was recruited by members of the district’s Republican Party. Another Legal Marijuana Now candidate told the Minnesota Reformer back in June that she had also been recruited to run by Republicans. This is all while a number of other candidates for either party have used false emails or phone numbers on their filing paperwork.

A Community Splits

On October 28, 2020, a number of legalization organizations in the state came together to “just say no” to cannabis political parties. “It is unconscionable to see the exploitation of voters who care about reforming our antiquated cannabis laws,” read the statement signed by directors of MN NORML, Sensible Change MN, and Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation. “As such, we, the undersigned, together call on voters who care about ending cannabis prohibition to vote for the DFL-endorsed candidates on their ballot.”

The Executive Director of Minnesota NORML who signed the letter is actually Michael Ford, the same individual who received over 5% of the vote just two years prior, securing major party status for the party that he now steers voters away from.

Instagram Post from Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation Announcing the Statement

While the voting public in Minnesota once relied on cannabis political parties to spread the message of legalization, they can now turn to the state’s DFL Party, according to House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler.

Winkler completed a statewide listening tour on cannabis law reform in 2019 and introduced a legalization bill near the tail end of the 2020 session. According to him (and the three legalization organizations mentioned above), individuals looking to see legalization anytime soon should focus on flipping control of the Minnesota Senate, which the Republicans now narrowly hold.

Going Forward

The history of cannabis activism in the state can seen in the election results of the past, and likewise, so too can the future of cannabis activism be seen in the election results of today. If the votes get tallied and they show a shift towards statewide DFL control, then the future of cannabis activism in the state looks very different than if the GOP retains control of the Senate.

If the Senate does flip and we see statewide cannabis legalization adopted, will either party run candidates in 2022 at all?

But before we start focusing on 2022, the question before us still stands: Will Legal Marijuana Now and Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidates impact control of legislative bodies? And by doing so, will their candidacies actually delay legalization in Minnesota?

Only time will tell.

Time, and lots of ballot counting.