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How Republicans are using Minnesota’s marijuana reform parties to siphon votes

The Nov. 3, 2020, ballot in Minnesota will include no less than 25 state legislative candidates representing the Legalize Marijuana Now Party and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party.

Minnesota Republicans are posing as legalization candidates in order to drain votes from Democrats.

Good news, right?

Wrong. While many of the candidates are longtime cannabis reformers, a number of them are running as a ruse. They’re Republicans pulling a dirty ballot trick.

Many of these candidates have no prior experience in electoral politics and have done nothing previously to help end cannabis arrests. Some have little intention of legalizing marijuana, now or ever. Some have openly admitted that they’re running primarily to siphon off Democratic votes so that Republican legislative candidates will win.

And guess what those Republican candidates plan to do with marijuana: Keep it illegal.

Minnesota Dems actually want to legalize

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz—a Democrat—supports cannabis legalization. Top Democrats in the Minnesota legislature have been busy crafting a bill and building public support, with an eye on moving legalization through in the coming legislative session.

But Republicans currently control the state Senate, and they’re dead set against legalization. They’ve vowed to block any legalization bills from even getting a hearing.

If Republicans manage to hold on to their slim 35-32 state Senate majority in the Nov. 3 election, then cannabis arrests in Minnesota will continue unabated—as will the appalling racial disparity in those arrests.

According to the most recent data available, Black Minnesotans remain 5.4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white Minnesotans, despite consuming cannabis at roughly the same rate.

Polling indicates Democrats have a real chance to win big this November, clearing the path for legalization. Republicans, seeing no way to win a straight up-and-up contest, are hoping enough 420-friendly voters will be lured away and cast their vote for a fake green candidate.

Handmade, craft-scale parties

Minnesota’s “Legal Marijuana Now” party was a true grassroots effort—until Republicans discovered how to use it like a shell corporation. This illustration by Andy Schuler, which appears on the party’s official website, reflects the true spirit of the party.

The tragedy of a party takeover

The Legalize Marijuana Now Party and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party have long and laudable histories, dating back to 1998 and 1968, respectively.

One fake legalization candidate listed her phone number as (999) 999-9999.

Two years ago, for the first time, they both achieved major party status in Minnesota by earning 5% of the vote in a statewide race and getting at least one vote in every county. That achievement means they can now put candidates on the ballot without having to go to the considerable effort and expense of collecting signatures.

But in the process, both parties lost control over who can (and who can’t) run as their candidates, leading to a bunch of Republican trolls to step in and pose as pro-cannabis activists, according to Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party founder Oliver Steinberg.

“It is a tremendous political blunder to let your enemies take over your establishment,” Steinberg told the Minnesota Post. “I personally think the entire state would be better off if obstructionist Republicans were out of power.”

Oliver Steinberg, founder of Minnesota’s Grassroots Party, called the GOP takeover “a tremendous political blunder.” (Photo from Grassroots Party website)

Trumpers posing as legalization advocates

While Steinberg didn’t mention any names when decrying the rush of Republican trolls now campaigning as fake cannabis candidates, he may well have been thinking of Robyn Smith, a retiree running for Minnesota state Senate as the Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate.

Smith says she prefers cannabis to alcohol and believes it should be legal, but that’s where her devotion to the cause ends. According to an expose earlier this year in the Minnesota Reformer, Smith admits she was recruited to run by an unnamed Republican operative, and that she herself openly supports the election of her supposed Republican opponent.

Meanwhile, Smith’s Facebook page remains endlessly devoted to pushing the candidacy of President Trump, who’s presided over 2 million cannabis arrests and hasn’t lifted a finger to stop them.

Call Rae Hart Anderson, at 999-9999

Another Legal Marijuana Now candidate, Tyler Becvar, did Smith one better. He actually posting one of his Republican opponent’s campaign videos on his own social media account.

Rae Hart Anderson, meanwhile, ran as a Republican for state senate in 2018, but now she’s a Grassroots Party candidate. Anderson’s frequently updated Twitter feed prominently features a portrait of President Trump, but seemingly never mentions cannabis, legalization, or even her own campaign.

When filing her candidacy with the secretary of state, she declined to provide an address or email, and listed her phone number as (999) 999-9999.

Rae Hart Anderson is running as a Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party nominee, but her Twitter feed contains nothing but pro-Trump material. There’s nothing on cannabis or legalization.

‘It just infuriates me’

The Trumper takeover of the previously legitimate parties has caused havoc among the actual party faithful, who worked for years to establish their legitimacy.

Patricia Jirovec McArdell, who serves as Minnesota NORML‘s board chairman, is also running for office this year as a Legalize Marijuana Now candidate, but she’s no Republican troll.

McArdell has been a tireless cannabis activist for years in Minnesota, lobbying lawmakers, educating the public and collecting signatures for legalization petitions while relying on medical cannabis to treat her epilepsy, neurological issues and chronic pain.

“Cannabis saved my life,” she tells Leafly.

Real legalization candidate

The real deal: Patricia Jirovec McArdell has spent years fighting for legalization and patients’ rights in Minnesota. (Photo from Legal Marijuana Now Party website)

A legit candidate, pushing the Dems on legalization

McArdell also says she’s only running for state senate in Minnesota District 64 because it’s already a safe seat for Democrats—meaning there’s no chance to play spoiler—and because she wanted a platform to continue her public education efforts, while pushing the other candidates to promise they’d co-sponsor a legalization bill if elected.

“We’re being taken advantage of by people who are misrepresenting themselves.” — Patricia Jirovec McArdell, a real Minnesota legalization advocate

That’s something her Democratic opponent has now done.

A former chaplain and emergency room worker, McArdell takes some rightful pride in that accomplishment, but she’s nonetheless “extremely angry” to see the Marijuana Legalization Now party infiltrated by fake candidates.

“We’re being taken advantage of by people who are misrepresenting themselves,” she says. “We worked so hard for years to get major party status, through absolute passion, dedication and sacrifice. And for these people to come in and pretend that they are part of this movement when it’s completely a political game to them—that just infuriates me.”

What have you done for legalization? ‘Nothing.’

Asked what he’s done to support the cannabis community or end marijuana arrests, Kevin O’Conner, the Legalize Marijuana Now Party candidate for US Senate, says “nothing, specifically.”

Unlike the obvious spoiler candidates, however, O’Conner genuinely disdains both Republicans and Democrats. He says his embrace of cannabis legalization is a natural extension of his general beliefs about freedom and government.

Fake legalization candidate

Kevin O’Connor hasn’t done a thing to help legalize marijuana. He just wants to use the party’s ballot space to gain attention. (Photo from Legal Marijuana Now Party website)

“I’ve always been a minimalist when it comes to the government’s involvement in people’s lives,” O’Conner tells Leafly, “and the War on Drugs—just like alcohol prohibition a hundred years ago—has been a disaster in many ways for personal liberty.”

So far so good.

But throughout a 45-minute conversation with O’Conner, it becomes abundantly clear that his attraction to the Marijuana Legalization Now Party has very little to do with cannabis. He only got involved when the party gained automatic ballot access, and sees the party’s standing as nothing more than a convenient way to espouse his anti-government views.

While true grassroots activists and advocates in Minnesota worked tirelessly for decades to build public and political support for ending cannabis arrests, O’Conner sat back and did nothing.

So what makes him think he’s the right person to run for higher office on a weed party platform?

“Well, what makes you believe you’re the right person for anything?” O’Conner asks rhetorically.

A question he fails to answer.

Real legalization candidate

Another real Legal Marijuana Now candidate: Steve “Stoney” Preslicka. He’s got the shirt to prove it. (Photo from Legal Marijuana Now Party website)

It’s just a fun little game to these posers

Kevin O’Conner likes to talk about limiting the size of government because that’s what he’s passionate about. He genuinely believes in cannabis legalization as a part of that effort, but never brings up the issue unless prompted, and never elaborates on it.

That’s possibly because he doesn’t seem to know much about it. Asked how many people were arrested in Minnesota last year for cannabis, he readily admits to having no idea. Won’t even hazard a guess. 

When pushed, O’Conner will even admit that none of the cannabis party candidates have any real chance of winning in 2020. And that Democrats, “verbally at least,” have been supportive of legalization, while Republicans have stood in opposition.

At least he’s honest.

David Bienenstock's Bio Image
David Bienenstock

Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.

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