In Minnesota, marijuana smokers can be fined as much as $200 if they are caught with a joint. But pot enthusiasts seeking a measure of revenge will soon find it in the least likely place: their state income tax form.

Thanks to this year's election, taxpayers in 1996 will be able to check a box to funnel money from the state treasury directly to the war chest of the Minnesota Grassroots Party (GRP).

The GRP is the first pro-pot party in the nation to qualify for taxpayer subsidy, says one national marijuana legalization group. While nobody is saying that a big joint will soon match Republican and Democratic cigars, one Minnesota GRP leader estimates that in 1996 the party could receive up to 100 times more than the paltry $2,000 it spent in 1994.

Why did the Republican tsunami fail to douse the GRP's fledgling ember? After all, the GOP wave crashed over these shores, producing Sen.-elect Rod Grams, widely considered the most conservative member Minnesota has sent to the upper chamber since before Hubert Humphrey's time.

GRP stalwarts admit their success was due less to an outpouring of public support than a careful reading of Minnesota's byzantine but generous campaign finance laws. Despite a public image as a group of zonked-out potheads, the GRP became the first minor political party in 18 years to make the tax forms. Its strategists discovered the simple standards to get a checkoff: Hold a state convention, draft a constitution and run a candidate for statewide office -- even if that candidate doesn't receive a single vote.

"The law was changed and made easier in the mid-'80s, but nobody knew about it," explains Steve Anderson, a 24-year-old computer programmer and GRP secretary who did the legal research. "It wasn't something the two major parties wanted to promote."

The GRP's U.S. Senate and gubernatorial hopefuls didn't top 1 percent of the vote, but nominees for state auditor and treasurer each received more than 80,000 votes -- better than 4 percent, more than the victory margin in either contest.

"The Minnesota group has produced a whole new level of marijuana law activism," exults Rob Kampia, chapter coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "One tier is writing and calling elected officials. The next level is to work for or against a candidate. Here, they've formed their own party and shown up in solid numbers, showing that Grassroots votes can actually change an election." Kampia says that the Minnesota GRP has inspired a similar party in Iowa; a GRP slate also made the Vermont ballot this fall.

Each taxpayer who checks the GRP box will designate $5 from the state's general fund to be held for the party. (Checking the box neither raises the tax owed nor lowers a refund. Instead, the money is appropriated from the state budget.)

"If just half of the people who voted for a Grassroots candidate check off the form, that's $200,000 right there," notes Anderson.

"I think it would be stretching it to say they'd get that much," responds Jeanne Olson, assistant executive director of the state Ethical Practices Board, which administers the law. "Right now, only 12 percent of the taxpayers check off the box, so {the GRP} is wildly optimistic if they think they could get 50 percent. Then again, we've never seen them on the form before, so I don't know. I've been fooled before."

Anderson acknowledges some obstacles. "We have a lot of supporters who are pot smokers. There's some question about how many of them would sign their names to a government tax form with the Grassroots Party written on it."

But even an average amount of support would produce $48,000, boosting a party that only had enough funds in 1994 for a few ads on cable TV and in local alternative weeklies. While that amount pales next to the $1.2 million of state money Democrats and Republicans split this year, Will Shetterly, the GRP's 1994 gubernatorial candidate, says it can only help in his group's quest to become Minnesota's major progressive party.

"There are a lot of frustrated Democrats and Republicans out there," he says. And Shetterly says his party wants to do more than smoke joints without threat of fines.

"We believe the government should help people without infringing their liberties," he says. "That's why we support legalizing, taxing and regulating all commerce in consensual activities -- but also universal health and day care, protecting the environment and improving public education and transportation."

Not all Minnesota progressives are cheered by the GRP's success. Mel Duncan, executive director of the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action, says bitterly, "They didn't talk about tax reform, or wages, or any hard-core economic analysis that has to be the base of a new progressive organization." Duncan says the GRP's highest vote totals reflect nothing more than another clever bit of strategy: It was the only third party to run candidates for statewide offices lower than governor and lieutenant governor. "The GRP certainly has some followers, but I think a lot more was just the vote of people who went to the polls and were {ticked} off at the two major parties," he says.

Part of Duncan's disdain may be traced to anxiety over the 1996 election, when a more visible GRP could wound Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, facing a tough reelection bid as one of the few unabashed liberals left on Capitol Hill.

"Do you think people who want pot legalized will vote against Paul?" asks Duncan incredulously. "I don't think so. Frankly, I think the Grassroots' support comes from a lot of closet Republican pot smokers."

As strange as those political bedfellows seem, Anderson does see common elements with the GOP. "The Republicans got a lot of mileage out of being the party of individual rights. But if you look at the 'Contract With America,' they favor increasing government in two areas where we favor a decrease -- prisons and the defense budget. We say let the minor drug offenders out and use existing prisons for the violent offenders."

Anderson acknowledges that the GRP faces a long, uphill climb toward respectability, even in the state where it has demonstrated the most support. "Most people, when they hear our name, they laugh -- you know Grassroots, legalize grass," he says. "But as they hear more from us, they know we're about other things. Maybe in 10 years, people will have a wider perception about that."