Minnesota lawmakers have unveiled a marijuana legalization bill and announced next steps to advance the reform in the 2023 legislative session.
At a press conference on Thursday, the House and Senate sponsors of a revised legalization bill were joined by leaders of each chamber as well as advocates to preview the legislation, which largely aligns with an earlier measure that passed the House in 2021.
Rep. Zack Stephenson (D) and Sen. Lindsey Port (D), who are sponsoring the proposal in their respective chambers, said that they already have a hearing scheduled in the House Commerce Committee next Wednesday.
“Cannabis should not be illegal in Minnesota. Minnesotans deserve the freedom and respect to make responsible decisions about cannabis themselves,” Stephenson said. “Our current laws are doing more harm than good.”
Port added that “we’ve seen the intense engagement from Minnesotans on this issue, we’ve heard about it in our communities and we are ready to act.”
On the Senate side, Port said that they would be taking time to educate members in order to “build the same kind of bipartisan support that has been built in the House.” However, it’s her hope that an initial committee hearing will be held as early as two weeks from now.
The legislation is an iteration of the House-passed bill from former Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), who now serves as campaign chairman of the advocacy coalition MN is Ready. That group announced last week that it would be lobbying for the measure while leading a grassroots effort to build support for reform.
The political environment is ripe for advancing legalization in Minnesota following the November election, which put the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party newly in control of the Senate while maintaining its majority in the House. Gov. Tim Walz (D), who supports ending cannabis prohibition, was also reelected.
Much of the new bill is consistent with Winkler’s legislation, which cleared 12 committees before being approved on the floor and then stalling in what was then a GOP-controlled Senate. There are a few key changes in the new version of the legislation, however.
For example, it adds a new license category for businesses that sell “lower-potency edible products” under Minnesota’s unique THC law that the governor signed earlier this year.
There would also be reduced regulatory requirements for those licensees, and they’d be able to permit on-site consumption if they have a liquor license, which is meant to ensure that shops currently selling low-THC beverages and edibles don’t face disruption.
Here are the main components of the revised marijuana legalization bill:
Adults 21 and older could purchase up to two ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to eight plants, four of which could be mature.
They could possess up to two ounces in a public place and up to five pounds in a private dwelling.
Gifting up to two ounces of marijuana without remuneration between adults would be permitted.
It would promote social equity, in part by ensuring that diverse licensing by scoring equity applicants higher.
Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension would be responsible for identifying people who are eligible for relief and process the expungements.
On-site consumption permits could be approved for events, and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill.
Unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas, though they could set “reasonable” regulations on the time of operation and location of those businesses.
Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at eight percent. Part of that revenue would fund substance misuse treatment programs, as well as grants to support farmers.
A new Office of Cannabis Management would be established, and it would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. There would be a designated Division of Social Equity.
People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.
The legislation as revised fixes an issue in current statute that prohibits liquor stores from selling THC products.
It also contains language banning synthetic cannabinoids, which is consistent with Board of Pharmacy rules put into place last year.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’ve engaged in among the most robust bill development processes of any legislation in the history of the legislature,” Stephenson said. “Our bill will create a safe, relatively well-regulated legal marketplace for Minnesotans to grow, sell and buy cannabis if they choose to do so.”
He said later in the briefing that “our caucus’s view is that the marketplace should be structured to benefit people who were harmed by the previous prohibition regime and to benefit local and small over big and national.” That includes engaging with tribal communities to ensure they’re able to effectively participate if they choose to.
Rep. Aisha Gomez (D), who chairs the House Taxes Committee said that the legislation was not designed to raise revenue for the state, and it doesn’t allocate special funding for various projects like like other states have, noting that its main goal is to “address the wrongs of prohibition [and] to bring people out of the illicit market and into a regulated market.”
“Cannabis taxes in our bill are not going to solve any of our social problems,” she said. “We’re not going to use cannabis taxes to fix the education changes that our communities need, to build all the affordable housing that we need, to fix all the infrastructure that we need.”
She said that “our commitment to the health and safety and equity that is encompassed here remains, regardless of where that potentially volatile revenue stream lands.”
Lawmakers and the governor have expressed optimism about the prospects of legalization in the upcoming session, especially with Democrats in control of both chambers.
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Following their election win in November, Democrats internally agreed to discuss the issue in short order.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) said recently that she expects cannabis reform to be included in the governor’s forthcoming budget request, though she reiterated that the reform “will take a long time” to move through the legislature.
While marijuana reform was excluded from a list of legislative priorities that Democrats unveiled on Tuesday, Hortman said that the issue is “a priority,” albeit a “very big, complicated.”
The governor included funding for implementing legalization in his last executive budget request, but lawmakers were unable to enact the policy change. He and Hortman have differing opinions about how quickly the issue can advance this session, however, with Walz recently saying it would be done “by May.”
For his part, state Sen. Sen. Nick Frentz (D), an assistant leader in the new DFL Senate majority, said that he believes legalization “will pass this session,” though he agrees with the speaker that “there’s a question of timing.”
Two polls released in September found that the majority of Minnesota residents support adult-use marijuana legalization—and one survey showed that even more Minnesotans approve of the state’s move to legalize THC-infused edibles that was enacted earlier this year.
A survey conducted by officials with the House at the annual State Fair that was released in September also found majority support for legalization. That legislature-run poll found that 61 percent of Minnesotans back legalizing cannabis for adult use.
Support was up this year from 58 percent when the House Public Information Services polled fair goers on the issue last year. In 2019, the House poll found 56 percent support for legalization.
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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.