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Legal cannabis bill begins committee marathon in Minnesota Legislature

For years, advocates have been pushing for the legalization of adult-use cannabis in the state. However, the odds appear better than ever this year.

Marijuana buds_stock photo
For years, advocates have been pushing for the legalization of adult-use cannabis in Minnesota.
Media Lens King / Getty Images / iStockphoto
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ST. PAUL — A large bill that would legalize adult-use cannabis, create a licensing system for cannabis businesses, and clear cannabis-related offenses from criminal records is once again making its way through the Minnesota Legislature.

The 250-page adult-use cannabis bill made its first stop in the House Commerce Committee on Dec. 11, where sponsor Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids told fellow members that after years of work on the issue, the state finally has an opportunity to change the law. It’ll be the first of about a dozen committee stops for the bill, which touches on issues ranging from taxes to criminal justice.

While Democrats in the House and Senate have not yet rolled out their priorities for the 2023 legislative session, Gov. Tim Walz and prominent DFL lawmakers have already expressed support for legalization.

“Minnesotans deserve the freedom and respect to make responsible decisions about cannabis themselves,” said Stephenson, who is carrying a bill that is the result of three years of work in the House. “Our current laws are doing more harm than good. State and local governments are spending millions enforcing laws and aren't helping anyone money that can be put to far better purposes. There is a better way.”

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Rep. Zack Stephenson.
Alex Derosier / Forum News Service

For years now, advocates have been pushing for the legalization of adult-use cannabis in Minnesota. However, the odds appear better than ever this year with Democratic majorities in the Legislature and a governor who said he’d sign a bill into law.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman has said legalization is a priority for the DFL majority in the House of Representatives, but Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic has not said whether her caucus is unified behind passing a bill.

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Some changes have scaled back allowable serving sizes and offerings in the state.

What's in the bill?

Under the current version, anyone age 21 or older would be able to possess 2 ounces or less of cannabis in a public place, and 5 pounds or less in a residence. Individuals would be able to possess edibles with a total of 800 milligrams or less of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis.

It would be legal to possess up to eight plants, of which for four or fewer can be mature, flowering plants. Use would be legalized in private places and prohibited where smoking is already prohibited under state law.

Many employers would no longer be able to test employees for cannabis use, though police officers, firefighters, people working directly with children or vulnerable adults, health care workers and truck drivers would still have drug and alcohol screenings. Employers could also still bar employees from using cannabis during work hours.

Sales of cannabis products would carry an 8% state tax. It's unclear exactly how much revenue legalization would generate, though a University of Minnesota Duluth study published in August 2022 found the state was missing out on up to $46 million in revenue from legal edibles alone, which are currently not taxed.

At a news conference on the bill last week, House Tax Committee Chair Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, told reporters the primary goal of the legislation is to address racial disparities in how marijuana laws are enforced and to bring an unregulated market under control.

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“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, you know, the education changes that our communities need to build all the affordable housing that we need to fix all the infrastructure that we need.”

On the regulatory side, legalization would create new licenses for cultivators, retailers, wholesalers and other parts of the cannabis business. An office of cannabis management created by the bill would regulate the production and sale of cannabis products in the state as well as the state medical cannabis program. The agency would work with the Department of Agriculture on food safety standards for edibles.

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THC-containing edibles made legal in Minnesota last July would also fall under new regulations. Sellers of the low-dosage edibles currently legal in Minnesota would need to apply for a license.”

Local governments would not be able to prohibit cannabis, though would be allowed to create “reasonable restrictions” on the times and places cannabis businesses can operate. Those reasonable restrictions include bans on a business operating within 1,000 feet of a school or day care.

The legalization bill would automatically expunge petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor marijuana convictions from records. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension would be directed to identify individuals eligible for getting minor cannabis-related offenses cleared from their criminal record and to notify the judicial system. The state would seal the records. 

It would also create a Cannabis Expungement Board to review felony cases and determine whether a record should be cleared or if the person should be resentenced.

Wednesday testimony

Nearly 30 testifiers appeared to offer comments on the bill Wednesday, including the League of Minnesota Cities, which had some concerns about the level of enforcement control local governments would have in a state where possession and sale of cannabis is legal. The bill allows local governments to create a low level offense for public cannabis use.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference said the expungement parts of the legalization bill should be moved separately from the legalization of recreational cannabis.

“It makes that redemption contingent upon the commercialization of a drug that wreaks havoc on the human brain,” said Ryan Hamilton, a lobbyist with the Catholic Conference. “No amount of regulation can curtail the damage that today's high potency recreational marijuana will do to Minnesota families and our quality of life.”

Other opponents of the bill who appeared included the Minnesota Trucking Association, which raised concerns about road safety, as there are no roadside tests to determine levels of cannabis impairment. The legalization bill calls for the Department of Public Safety to create a pilot program for roadside testing using saliva samples.

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The trucking association also said legalization can harm trucking industry recruitment, as legalization in other states has shrunken the pool of workers who can pass a pre-employment drug screening required by federal regulation.

The House Commerce Committee on Wednesday voted to pass the bill along to the Judiciary Finance and Civil Law, one of the many stops it must make before being referred to the House floor for a vote. The Senate has not taken up its legalization bill in a committee yet.

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Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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