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O Cannabis: What happens when pot’s legal next door?

September 8, 2018

The neighbors are getting into the cannabis business.

Canada’s legalizing recreational marijuana in October. In November, North Dakota voters will decide whether to follow suit.

That’s two more borders than Minnesota law enforcement would like to share with pot-legal states or nations.

But up and down those borders, Minnesotans are watching the pot preparations with only mild interest.

“We have not had a discourse here at a city level,” about the Oct. 17 launch of legalization in Canada, said Ken Anderson, city administrator for International Falls, Minn. — a city as close to Canada as it’s possible to get without setting foot in Ontario.

Canadian cannabis stocks are skyrocketing, local governments are scrambling to figure out the new pot economy and entrepreneurs are setting up shop.

In Ontario, Thunder Bay’s first retail cannabis store will open along the harbor expressway between an A  W and a hair salon. Posters displaying the “Can and Can’t of Cannabis” are going up around Winnipeg, Manitoba, spelling out the new rules: You must be at least 19 to buy cannabis legally, you can buy only from a retailer licensed by the province and no you may not smoke or vape in public.

Cannabis tourism is growing into a multimillion dollar business in some of the 10 states where it’s legal — flouting federal laws that still treat marijuana as a dangerous, illicit substance. Colorado, which legalized the trade in 2014, estimated that 12 million visitors partook of a “marijuana-related activity” during the 2016 tourism season.

Maybe International Falls will see a tourism bump of its own from travelers heading north, but Anderson’s not worried about those tourists trying to bring back souvenirs.

“We have a strong customs and border protection presence here,” he said.

The only barrier between Minnesota and North Dakota is the Red River of the North. There hasn’t been much talk on the Minnesota side about the upcoming legalization vote.

In Moorhead, Minn., a cozy college town on the other side of the bridge from Fargo, Mayor Del Rae Williams has heard vague talk about legalization and the 18,000 signatures North Dakota supporters collected to put the issue to a vote in November.

“Pot busts are not my priority,” Williams once told her police chief. Moorhead is a bridge-width away from Fargo, but Williams’ only real concern if the ballot issue passes would be preventing people from driving over that bridge under the influence. “I am not a pot smoker — I have never been — but I think you would be surprised by how many do and do not think of themselves as criminals.”

Thirty states, including Minnesota, have legalized medical marijuana. Ten states, including the entire western seaboard, have legalized completely: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Washington, D.C.

If you’re in Colorado, legalization means you’re surrounded by dispensaries staffed with hipster “budtenders” and restaurants with marijuana on the menu and spas that offer cannabis oil massage and pot yoga studios.

If you live in D.C., as marijuana-averse Attorney General Jeff Sessions and I both did last year, you find out that pot is legal only when your landlord sends out a mass e-mail asking tenants to be more considerate about all the skunky smoke wafting into the hallways.

North Dakota’s ballot amendment would make it legal for anyone age 21 or older to use cannabis, and seal the records of past marijuana convictions.

Former state Attorney General Bob Wefald is spearheading a campaign against legalization, telling reporters this week that the ballot measure “would make North Dakota the most liberal state for the regulation and control of marijuana.”

North Dakota’s drug policy isn’t really on East Grand Forks City Administrator David Murphy’s radar, although local law enforcement officials — already battling methamphetamines, opioids and heavy drugs flowing between Winnipeg and the Twin Cities — aren’t thrilled at the prospect of retail marijuana to the north and west.

Could Minnesota get into the business? A poll of state fairgoers last month found 56 percent in favor of legalization. DFL gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz favors legalizing marijuana and taxing the heck out of it; Republican Jeff Johnson does not.

Opponents worry about the social costs of legalization — addiction, kids getting access to the drug, the fact that there’s no easy way to tell if someone is driving under the influence of marijuana. Supporters point to the social price of prohibition — all those lives locked away for drug offenses.

Murphy can see North Dakota from his office window, but that hasn’t given him much insight into which way the vote will go.

“North Dakota, it’s a different place. They’re very conservative and they’re very old-school,” he said. Then again, North Dakotans have a libertarian streak that Murphy summed up as: “ ‘As long as your business doesn’t infringe on my business, I don’t care what the hell you do.’ ”

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks

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