“We know that who is in the Legislature matters when it comes to passing major policies like this.”

By Baylor Spears, Minnesota Reformer

Now that Minnesota has legalized hemp-derived THC products as of July 1, proponents of full legalization are activating a new resource in the political battle over the green plant’s future: customers.

Josh Wilken-Simon, policy director of Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, said they estimate 700,000 Minnesotans are cannabis consumers. “Many of these folks aren’t politically active and so really what we want to do is identify these individuals and get them to the polls and try to drive voter turnout.”

Cannabis legalization advocates hope to replicate the success of other industry lobbying campaigns that turn consumers of products like guns or outdoor gear into political activists.

They’re thinking of people like Gus Whatcott, a 31-year-old St. Louis Park resident, who regularly rents space in the backroom of Legacy Glassworks—a glass pipe shop in Uptown that also sells some cannabis products—to work on his glass blowing projects.

Whatcott said he supports legalization, but doesn’t always vote in local and state elections. Although he started voting more after former President Donald Trump was elected, he said he struggles to wade through information about individual candidates.

“[Legalization] has got to happen at some point,” Whatcott said. “Everywhere the tables are turning on that. Me and most of my friends agree it’s just a matter of time.”

The MNisReady Coalition, which is a partnership of regional advocacy groups and cannabis businesses, hopes to use customer loyalty and access to email addresses to turn occasional voters into dedicated legalization voters.

In Minnesota, that could be a boon for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which has been pushing hard for legalization for a few years, while Senate Republicans have blocked it. A couple hundred votes in a handful of battleground legislative districts could deliver to Democrats elusive full control of the Legislature. The politics are complicated, however, by the continued presence of the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legalize Marijuana Now Party, which Democrats fear pull the votes of single issue voters from them and may have helped Republicans win some races in 2020.

The coalition is capitalizing on the explosion of cannabis sales following Minnesota’s recent legalization of hemp-derived THC edibles and beverages. They’re planning to meet potential voters at the businesses where they buy cannabis products to tell them about the November election.

Wilken-Simon of Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation is also the owner of Legacy Glassworks. He said lines were out the door the first day after the recent legalization. He said many of his customers were surprised and excited, but also questioned why it was taking lawmakers so long to move toward full legalization.

It won’t be possible without a pro-legalization majority in both chambers. In 2021, the Minnesota House voted 72-61 to approve HF600, a bill that would have legalized recreational cannabis use and expunged most cannabis convictions. The state Senate never brought the bill up for a vote.

The coalition’s goal is to build a pro-cannabis legalization majority in the Minnesota Legislature this year, laying the groundwork for full legalization in 2023.

“The first step is educating voters on where the candidates stand,” said Maren Schroeder, the coalition director. “We know that who is in the Legislature matters when it comes to passing major policies like this.”

They’re making a 2022 legalization voter’s guide with candidates’ prior statements on cannabis, as well as a candidate questionnaire—mirroring the efforts of conventional interest groups on issues like guns, abortion and the environment.

Schroeder said they’re enlisting the help of businesses to put the guide directly in cannabis voters’ hands, which is easier for businesses with a storefront than advocacy groups. Member retailers, she said, will leverage businesses’ customer email lists and pass out fliers with a QR-code that links to the voters’ guide.

Grounded Gardens, a hemp farm and CBD store in Silver Lake, is one of the coalition’s industry partners.

Owner Bridgette Bethke Pinder said businesses will be able to reach corners of the state that individual advocacy groups may not have access to.

“My farmers are in Hutchinson, Minnesota, so I can go out there and talk to those people about cannabis, hemp and about legalization on a different scale than [others] that don’t have a business out there,” Bethke Pinder said. “They’re going to listen to me maybe a little bit more, because I’m actually growing the plants and I’m processing and I’m making all the products right there in their county.”

The coalition is still working out details, but Bethke Pinder said emails to customers about the coalition will be similar to sending out a coupon.

“[Like] letting them know that we’re having a sale at our store, but letting them know about MNisReady and then letting them know who are the candidates that are pro-legalization, if that’s something they’re interested in,” she said.

Wilken-Simon said he’s considering offering Legacy Glassworks’ customers the option to sign a pledge committing to vote, alongside a discount or small gift like a lighter. He’s also considering donating glass blowing classes or handmade pipes to help raise money for the coalition.

Nothing But Hemp, one of the first hemp dispensaries in the Midwest, is another of the coalition’s business partners. CEO Steven Brown said his business previously used its customer base to support the cannabis industry by recruiting customers to fill out a survey about their use of hemp products. They provided the data to the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy and Department of Agriculture.

Brown said he is ready to engage customers in the effort to pass legalization: “I would be happy to utilize our Nothing But Hemp customer base.” The company has served more than 100,000 customers in recent years, he said. The number is expected to grow sharply with the new legalization law.

This story was first published by Minnesota Reformer.

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