By Matty Leingang
Editors Note: This story includes discussions of drug use and may contain foul language. While it has been edited through Associated Press Guidelines, some readers may find this offensive. This story was submitted to The Advocate through Chris Walker’s Digital Storytelling class, it is part of a ten-part series of stories examining Minnesota’s legalization of Marijuana. Each story investigates the background and implications that come with the legalization. The series, which began on April 28th, will run until May 5th.
Photo illustration by Abby Makay
Eight inches of fresh powder greets daily commuters upon their arrival home in the Twin Cities metro. November is coming to a close and the area has experienced its first significant snowfall since the winter prior. Considered small talk in other regions of the country, discourse about the weather in Minnesota is serious business. There’s something to be said of the camaraderie of sharing a brutal winter with neighbors, coworkers and even complete strangers.
Earlier in the month, Minnesotans voted to flip the state senate from red to blue. They also reelected incumbent governor Tim Walz, a Democrat. The day after this was confirmed, WCCO in Minneapolis reported that former governor Jesse Ventura claimed on his podcast that Walz intended to legalize marijuana as one of the first acts of the new legislature. A spokesperson for Walz confirmed his comments. A similar bill failed in May 2022.
Since 1976, marijuana has been decriminalized in Minnesota. The penalty for 42.5 grams or less was reduced to a petty misdemeanor and constitutes a maximum fine of $200. In 2014, then governor Mark Dayton (another Democrat), signed into law a bill legalizing medical cannabis, becoming the 22nd state to grant some level of access to the drug for medicinal purposes.
In January 2019, Democratic state senators introduced legislation to allow people over 21 to possess, grow and purchase limited quantities of marijuana. The bill was struck down by senate Republicans in March of the same year. Debate on the matter was tabled in the senate until 2022, when a senate majority approved the legalization of edibles and beverages that contain small amounts of THC.
The move was mired in controversy as it’s been surmised that certain senate Republicans didn’t fully understand the intricacies of what they were voting on, according to numerous news outlets including The Washington Post. Nonetheless, the law permits the sale of products containing 5 milligrams per serving. Most states where recreational cannabis is legal set the serving size at 10 milligrams.
Of the 21 states where marijuana has been legalized for recreational use, 14 of them (two-thirds) were a result of a ballot initiative. The drug’s legality has never been left up to the constituency in Minnesota, though 53% of residents said they would back such a proposition, according to a September 2022 poll by Mason Dixon Polling. Responses fell on party lines with 70% of Democrats saying they’d support it, compared to 29% of Republicans. 60% of Independents were also in favor.
Royalton, Minnesota, is decidedly conservative. The town of nearly 1,300 is located about 20 miles north of St. Cloud, and situated in the middle of the state. Most of Royalton belongs to Morrison County, where they haven’t voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since 2000. In the 2022 presidential election, the town remained overwhelmingly Republican with 75.8% of voters casting their ballots for Donald Trump, according to data compiled by Ballotpedia.
Royalton’s premier attraction is assumedly Treasure City. A two-story wooden cutout of a pirate greets drivers on U.S. Highway 10, due north of the borough’s quaint downtown area. A patch on the marauder’s eye and a pegleg stuck in a chest of loot hints at the purported individualism of the town’s inhabitants. A flurry of signs announce the wares within the walls of the extended structure.
Inside, row upon row of novelties line aisles thin enough to worry any customer in bulky winter attire. Boxes of polished gemstones segue into an array of custom-shaped cribbage boards, enough to intrigue the most stubborn septuagenarians. Taxidermied crocodile heads compliment the bounty of dinosaur playthings. Opaque packages serve as random grab bags, alluring shoppers who prefer to leave their acquisitions up to chance. Glass display cases hold antiquated weaponry – guns, knives, belt buckles.
A seemingly limitless supply of Minnesota merchandise fills many gaps, in commodities and logic. Near the register, a plastic container houses oddly shaped dice, bare of the requisite marking of six-sided specimens. Next to these, a variety of individually-wrapped caramel candies are marked five for a dollar, a final enticement for those at the till. Treasure City showcases an abundance of the mundane. Some would consider it a tourist trap, others a junk store; profitable fodder for the weekend or summer crowds heading to the lake.
Perhaps the most peculiar item is a Jesse Ventura bobblehead figure. A telling smirk preserved on the erstwhile lawmaker’s face, arms crossed in staunch defiance of political norms. Closer examination reveals that there are dueling versions of the statuette. One features Ventura with his right foot on top of a distraught donkey. The Democratic mascot branded with the letters ‘DFL’ on its side, a nod to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Minnesota’s merged blue party. The other finds his boot resting firmly on the back of an overcome elephant. The animal stamped with ‘GOP’ to denote Ventura’s defeat of the other prominent camp.
Ventura’s unlikely tenure as governor included being the first person to hold the state office to outspokenly support cannabis legalization for medicinal purposes. Two decades later, the state finds itself in a stalemate concerning broader legalization, attempting to play catch up with nearly every other progressive state. A cashier at Treasure City is reluctant to offer her views on the matter.
“I don’t talk politics or any of that crap,” is her initial response, though the next few minutes are ripe with casual civic opining. She expresses the notion that legalization could provide tax revenue for the state. Governor Tim Walz espoused a similar sentiment in November 2018. She remarks that she doesn’t like the local gummies but stopped short of elaborating whether the statement indicated the low quality of the product or that she was against their existence entirely.
Down the street at 10 Spot Lounge, the bartender offers a less nuanced outlook. “Just get it over with, enough f—— around…I know people in pain who rely on good gummies, and they’re gonna get them one way or another from a different state.” He doesn’t balk at the mention of the dueling Jesse Ventura dolls.
One block south of 10 Spot, is Scottie’s Log Bar, affectionately known as “The S—hole” to its frequenters. Decals on the front door and windows announce plainly the kind of establishment revelers are about to enter: A middle finger to President Joe Biden and a middle finger to Governor Tim Walz. Above the bar hangs a deer rifle, nestled in among other open nods to violence, a plethora of surveillance cameras and plenty of anti-Democrat ephemera. A bumper sticker in the styling of the stalwart Trump/Pence branding reads: “Make America a S—hole: Vote Democrat.
Damian Lenarz, a lifelong Royalton resident, edges his way into the conversation after overhearing chatter about the Jesse Ventura figurines. He relays a story of his late grandmother, Bev, who had a photo opportunity with the then governor at 10 Spot (then named Mel’s 10) in early 2000. He places a couple calls on speaker phone and within minutes produces a digital photo of the relic. The exchange again turns to Ventura’s declaration of Walz’s plan to legalize marijuana.
“Oh, we don’t give a s— about that,” Lenarz says, resolute in his words and demeanor.
“As long as they’re not smoking it in the bathroom,” the bartender quips.
The once divisive topic has become palatable to the masses, even in a devoutly conservative small town in rural Minnesota. America’s ill-fated “War on drugs” has faded from citizen’s collective memory, if it’s not entirely absent from the minds of younger generations. The electorate has another set of problems that seem more pressing in the age of ever-expanding access to information. Though the country is calcified on party lines, the matter at hand seems to have slipped through the cracks. Inflation, abortion and gun control are the hot button issues of the modern age.
If the dialogue in Royalton is indicative of wider right-wing acceptance of cannabis legalization, then the state seems primed to ink a comprehensive law in the legislative new year. The once contentious matter has gained widespread approval with the realization that it can generate tax revenue.
“I would say the biggest political issue in our town would be misuse of taxpayers money,” Lenarz said, “For instance people living on the system, social security checks going to those who are able to work and don’t.” An increase in revenue might function to quell some of these feelings, though an attitudinal mindshift may be necessary to combat the underlying cause. Either way, an increase in government funds would under most circumstances be viewed as a net positive.
The nonchalance exhibited by Royalton’s occupants toward the subject of legalization was markedly less engaging than the attention paid to the daily weather. Twilight approaches on the western horizon and a light wind brings the temperature down to the teens. The dread of a gloomy, early winter night is an inherence that anyone who has spent the season in the upper Midwest is all too familiar with. Day drinkers imbibe in the encroaching evening splendor of having a warm place to enjoy an adult beverage. The bartender temporarily abandons her post to step out into the frigid dusk, announcing to patrons, “I’m gonna have the last two drags of a
cigarette cuz it’s too f—— cold.”