Wildfire smoke. Cannabis czar. Dean Phillips. Red River Women’s Clinic. Trans refuge. Land Back Movement. Can we assemble a newsy collage of Minnesota in 2023 as we continue marching into 2024? Let’s try—while predicting what we can of the state’s future, too.
It Was a Hot, Hazy Summer
In her handbook of 100 “climate solutions for everyone,” released last year, author Heidi Roop’s maximalist strategy for saving the planet is everything-and-the-eco-friendly-sink. “I wish there was a panacea solution,” she says. Instead, try oat milk. And food-waste awareness. And the cold-water cycle.
Of recent invention, there’s also the InnovaTree. A hybrid poplar—and a decent windbreak—it grows extra speedily and sucks carbon from the air four times faster than red pine. The first 100 up for consumer sale went fast at a Wisconsin nursery last summer, according to the U of M’s Natural Resources Research Institute, which crossbred the tree over 25 years. Several thousand now carpet research sites globally.
“I see something like a hybrid poplar … or the fact that [the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] got $100 million to support climate resilience investment in the state [last year], and the governor has a plan to have every community have a climate-adaption strategy or climate-action plan by the year 2030—I think, collectively, all of those things … [give me] hope,” says Roop, who leads climate research at the U of M.
Legislatively, Minnesota did a lot for the climate last year. “I think about 2023 as a landmark year for climate leadership at the state level,” Roop says. A package of climate policies put $2 billion toward solar projects, grid improvements, an electric-vehicle rebate program, and other grants and upgrades. It pledged Minnesota would produce net-zero emissions by 2050. And it arrived at a conspicuous time. “I think 2023, sadly, brought to light more of the climate conversation we need to be having.”
Canadian wildfire smoke tinged summer skies and made some Minnesotans feel sick. The haze resulted in a record number of air-quality alerts. In recent decades, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says, the state’s air quality has actually improved: Emissions dropped “significantly” by 2017 thanks to federal and state clamp-downs on tailpipes and power generation. But Canada’s abnormally dry conditions caught flame. Minnesota’s air-quality index ratcheted past 150, into the “unhealthy for everybody” zone, 14 times last year. That’s a lot: Since measurements began in 2000, the state has fielded one red-zone alert per decade. “It’s a reminder that climate change doesn’t need a passport,” Roop says.
Summer was warmer than usual, too. Across the Northern Hemisphere, the season was the hottest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. September broke Twin Cities records going back to 1873, with an average temp of 69.1 degrees. It was hot enough to call off the Twin Cities Marathon. Then came a Minnesota winter contending for warmest on record.
How warm are we getting? Last year, the University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership released new climate models: In a “moderate emissions scenario,” Minnesota and surrounding states would see each year’s daily maximum temp rise 3.9 to 5.5 degrees by 2060-79.
“Globally, we are unfortunately currently on track for a high-emissions scenario,” says Suzi Clark, an environmental scientist who works with Roop, “barring sudden and drastic cuts to our global greenhouse gas emissions.” Last January, the governor’s office said Minnesota was aligned, for the first time, with its greenhouse gas reduction goals. (The pandemic helped.)
“Globally” is what matters, though. In that moderate-emissions scenario, the temperature increase “corresponds with 23 to 32 more days per year above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in southwest Minnesota, with consequences for human health,” Clark says, “and 17 to 24 fewer days per year with snow on the ground in northern Minnesota, with consequences for ecosystems, recreation, and tourism.” In store for Minnesotans: extreme rains and extreme heat.
Tick-related diseases are ramping up due to warmer and wetter conditions. Lake temps are rising, “which puts them at greater risk of things like harmful algae blooms that put stress on our critical species, our cold-water fishes,” Roop says.
By 2070, Minnesota could resemble Kansas, according to a 2020 study from the U of M, with the state heating up, drying out, and losing almost all its boreal forest. “We have programs in the state that are actively trying to plant new species to outpace climate change,” Roop says, “because our forests themselves can’t adapt and move as fast as the heat.” The InnovaTree is part of that.
The nation is now looking to Minnesota as a leader in climate policy, Roop says. “Everybody agrees there’s a fire, and now we’re sort of fighting over whether to use the garden hose or to get the fire truck on hand.”
Minnesota Legalized Recreational Cannabis
Of course there would be a lot of press. It was Minnesota’s first “THC restaurant.” Journalists and influencers went for the splashy vibes, the cocktail highs, the avocado cacao mousse. A few guests have tried THC (all hemp-derived, per the law) for the first time here—including a couple in their 80s, the owner says. At press time, just one person, a mid-twentysomething, had gotten anxious enough for the owner to swing by for a calming chat. Others have melted into the couches “for hours.”
After that attention, the owner says, the city health department reached out: There were concerns about how Hi Flora! was using its THC tinctures.
“They didn’t like the fact that we were saying, like, ‘Oh, these tinctures can be put into your drink, and let’s show you how to do it,’ basically,” says chef Heather Klein, who opened the vegan, nonalcoholic, and THC-infused restaurant last July in the Lowry Hill East neighborhood. The Office of Medical Cannabis says restaurant staff cannot put THC tinctures in food or drinks, although customers can. The five-milligram, juniper-spiked Smoked, the 10-milligram Tangerine Dream, the 15-milligram Umami Mami—the FDA hasn’t approved their use as food additives.
“Rolling with the punches” is how Klein describes this period spent waiting on the Office of Cannabis Management for guidance. Until 2025, when the new office rolls out, the health department is running the show via the Office of Medical Cannabis. Complicating matters, Gov. Walz’ pick to lead the Office of Cannabis Management abruptly resigned after the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio reported her company sold edibles with THC levels and synthetic ingredients outside legal bounds.
“Just interpreting the law has been challenging,” says Klein, who was dealing with the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy before the Office of Medical Cannabis took over. “How much THC can we sell and, like, what are the limits for people? What are the different ways that we can sell it? Those type of questions—some of them we got answered.” Tinctures must come childproof—tested, sealed, properly labeled. Klein has a cost-effective suggestion: If a customer wants, say, one milligram, a server should be able to drop it into their dish or nonalcoholic drink, easy. The goal is low-dose “euphoria.”
“It’s just a lot less harmful than alcohol, in my opinion,” Klein says, “so it was kind of refreshing that it’s finally able to be consumed legally.”
Minnesota legalized recreational cannabis Aug. 1. Hemp-derived edibles became legal the year before. Dispensaries won’t begin selling bud until 2025, when a licensing system revs up—although some dispensaries on Native lands, which are sovereign, have opened shop already. Until then, edible and sippable products have ushered in a new era of consumption.
The law outlines personal-use privileges for those 21 and older, who may, for example: possess or transport up to 2 ounces of cannabis flower in a public place; possess up to 2 pounds of cannabis flower in their private residence; and possess or transport edible cannabis products or lower-potency hemp edibles infused with a combined 800 milligrams or less of THC.
To gauge the law’s effects, Minnesota now has the Cannabis Research Center at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. The center launched in November and will study cannabis-related impacts on public wellbeing, which may include traffic incidents, ER visits, crime, and reports of sleep improvement or pain management, as well as how legalization affects communities differently. The goal, in part, is to inform policy.
Traci Toomey leads the center with a background in substance research. She notes studies have found cannabis use by people under age 21 may lead to brain-development issues, use disorders, and mental health problems. “So, I’m really interested in, ‘How do we prevent underage people from using?’” To that end, she is pleased with the state’s mandatory compliance checks and says the center may work with the Office of Cannabis Management on policies or training programs for sellers, although it will take time.
“There are a lot of negatives identified with cannabis.” But, Toomey adds, “There’s a reason that we have a medical cannabis office. There’s at least some indication for some positive health outcomes—otherwise, we wouldn’t have that office.”
We Continued to Reckon With George Floyd’s Legacy
In 2020, a south Minneapolis intersection became ground zero of a nationwide movement that inspired over 260 police reform laws, moved countless books on anti-racism, and prompted companies to answer the call of Black Lives Matter with diversity and inclusion efforts.
The city cordoned off the intersection with barricades following George Floyd’s murder outside the Cup Foods convenience store that May. After reopening to traffic in 2021, the “square” became a roundabout, too.
At 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, traffic curls around a raised fist made of steel. This place has been deemed a memorial and protest site. It marks a historically Black commercial hub. Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins, who lives a few blocks away, sees it as the core of a development plan, too. Introduced barely a year before Floyd’s murder, 38th Street Thrive envisions senior housing, a mental health agency, and an entrepreneur launchpad in the area.
But the intersection calls for a development plan unto itself.
The city planned to redesign right-of-way infrastructure, but community feedback led the Office of Public Works to broaden focus. It now treats the square more as an organic unit, inclusive of the defunct gas station, which has become a community gathering spot, and a yet-undefined vision for a permanent memorial.
The city’s timeline arrived in the fall. By spring 2024, a “priorities and vision” blueprint, built on community engagement, should inform designs for a permanent memorial and street traffic. Construction of some kind should begin 2025.
The intersection matters because of the history and the potential it now represents. When protesters occupied this place three years ago, leaders issued 24 demands. Among them were an end to qualified immunity, the canning of certain officials, and area investments, such as $300,000 for “undoing racism” training in the Black community. Jeanelle Austin, who has helped with caretaking and leadership of the protest movement at the square, did not have an update on how many demands have been met, but it doesn’t appear to be many.
Austin has been part of the Community Co-Creation Team (CCT), assembled in late 2022 to provide the city community feedback. Unhappy with input the city has collected—with over 500 responses in spring 2022 “not enough,” Austin says, and too geographically restricted for an “international” site—Austin and the CCT teamed with the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. They designed their own survey, with 5,000 respondents by late December, Austin says. The city helped with translations. A Public Works representative says the city will tap the resulting data, expected by late March at press time.
Meanwhile, city reporting on community feedback at 38th and Chicago has revealed restlessness. In a few anonymous late-summer interviews, folks said the square is “very touristy” and should be “by and for the people.”
The month after the city unveiled its timeline, five businesses at the square sued. They include Cup Foods and are owned by the same family, according to the lawsuit. They accused the city of permitting violent crime, blocking customer traffic, and leaving the stores without financial aid. They want $1.5 million in damages. In a statement, Mayor Jacob Frey said the city did “everything possible to open the street safely amid very tenuous circumstances.”
As for the overarching idea of justice, 2023 saw the prosecution of all four former officers involved in Floyd’s murder. The final sentencing, of Tou Thao, happened in May.
“Justice is amorphous, right?” says Jenkins, who was narrowly reelected in November. “I think justice would look like an overall wholesale change in how we do public safety in our community. And that’s happening.” Last June, the Justice Department found the Minneapolis Police Department guilty of, among other things, discrimination against Black and Native people and the use of excessive force. Jenkins is hopeful about the Office of Community Safety, created in 2022 to unify safety functions and equipped with behavioral crisis response services meant to sensitively address mental health issues.
Attempts at public safety reform, Jenkins says, “will be greatly monitored and enhanced by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, who sued the city, [and] the Department of Justice, who also sued the city and are implementing very stringent reforms and protocols that the city and the police department will have to include in order to become a more constitutionally sound, accountable, professional, anti-racist police department.”
Minnesota Became a Haven for Abortion Care
In North Dakota, for a long time, it has felt like, “OK, here we go, it’s another lawsuit,” says Tammi Kromenaker, a social worker who runs the 25-year-old Red River Women’s Clinic, which offers abortion care.
From Fargo, North Dakota, the abortion clinic moved east to Moorhead. It was only five minutes away—a flip across the state border—but it reaped Minnesota’s legal advantages, since North Dakota began enforcing a total ban on abortion last spring, effective during all stages of pregnancy except in the case of death or serious health problems.
In summer 2022, the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision overturned the federal right to abortion care.
Last year, Minnesota affirmed that right. The state codified the preexisting legal protection in the Protect Reproductive Options Act. Minnesota became an island: All states bordering it have banned abortions.
November marked Tammi Kromenaker’s 30th year in abortion care. The 51-year-old started when she was 21, and while her commitment has never wavered, she says, she feels “exhilarated again.”
Comparing the same three-month period pre- and post-Dobbs, Minnesota saw a 37% increase in the number of abortions, as reported last October by the Society of Family Planning.
Red River has not experienced as large an influx—maybe 10-15% more patients, Kromenaker guesses. The clinic has seen patients from Nebraska, Iowa, Texas, and other abortion-restrictive states. The administrative staff has grown. A remodel should fit a few more exam rooms. Kromenaker says the clinic can see patients within a week from when they call. “It really is about starting a little earlier, staying a little later, just adding those extra few slots to the schedule.” Other clinics nationwide have reportedly seen wait times stretch into multiple weeks.
The difference has shown up in other big and small ways. Staff don’t have to read what Kromenaker calls “biased” information to patients when they call. Politicians like Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have visited to show support. “We had an Indigenous patient who wanted to take her tissue home for ritual, cultural, appropriate-to-her ceremony,” Kromenaker says. “We were able to arrange that with her, and that’s something, in North Dakota, we couldn’t do.”
Minnesota Became a Trans Refuge
Last spring, Gov. Walz signed an executive order protecting the right to gender-affirming health care. “We want every Minnesotan to grow up feeling safe, valued, protected, celebrated, and free to exist as their authentic versions of themselves,” Walz said.
He was responding to how rapidly Republican-led states had advanced bills to reduce protections for trans people. Bans on gender-affirming care affecting youths have passed in 22 states, including the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Shortly after Walz’ executive order, the state legislature pushed through a slate of legal protections for those crossing state lines to receive gender-affirming care. Such care includes mental health assistance, medical care, and social services. Effectively, Minnesota became a “trans refuge state.”
A month later, Minnesota also banned so-called conversion therapy, shielding LGBTQ youth and vulnerable adults from the practices by which licensed providers have tried to “cure” people of non-heterosexual orientations.
Minnesota Returned More Land to Natives
The Land Back Movement describes a nationwide effort to return land to Native peoples. For example, last September, Minnesota returned the 1,400-acre Upper Sioux Agency State Park, of southwest Minnesota, to a Dakota tribe, in restitution for the events that precipitated the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. How much land could be returned, nationally speaking? Federal public lands amount to 640 million acres.
The past few years have seen other local examples: The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe received 11,760 acres late 2020. In 2021, the Lower Sioux Community received a 114-acre site where the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 started after U.S. violation of a treaty.
Last September’s reparations reportedly received pushback from those worried it would mean fewer tourists and less money for nearby Granite Falls. Ancestors of the Upper Sioux Community used this land for religious and communal ceremonies. The transfer is expected by 2033.
The State Positioned Itself on the National Stage
Rep. Dean Phillips, the Democrat from Minnesota’s third district, edged into the race for presidency late last year, largely pinning his bid on President Joe Biden’s old age. The odds do not appear in Phillips’ favor. But the gambit has earned him national write-ups, with Time dubbing him “The Other Guy.” As reported by Axios, many of his Democratic colleagues see his run as a betrayal.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Emmer, the Republican from Minnesota’s sixth district, almost became House speaker. Hours after his nomination, he backed out. The scramble to replace the suddenly ousted Kevin McCarthy ended with Louisiana’s Mike Johnson. It was reportedly clear Emmer would not have enough GOP support. He has received criticism from right-wing Republicans for voting to certify the 2020 presidential election results and codify same-sex marriage, among other things.
Minnesota overall became a model for Democrats last year. That’s because, for the first time since 2014, the party has a political “trifecta”: a blue house, senate, and governorship. The state also had a huge surplus, and 2023’s $72 billion two-year budget was the biggest in Minnesota’s history. Political reporter Adam Edelman called the state a “laboratory” for progressive policies. While enacting measures on abortion, gender-affirming care, climate action, LGBTQ protections, and cannabis (as covered in this feature), Minnesota also passed new gun restrictions, expanded paid family and medical leave, established free school meals, increased education funding, hiked taxes for affordable housing, and restored voting rights to incarcerated people immediately upon completion of their sentences.
This story appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of Minnesota Monthly.