After hours of debate on Thursday night that at times became heated, the Minnesota House of Representatives approved a bill to legalize marijuana in the state.
After moving through 12 committees since being introduced in February, the full chamber passed the measure on a 72–61 vote, with some Republican support. It now proceeds to the Senate, where leaders in the GOP majority have vowed to derail it.
Sponsored by House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) and other lawmakers, the legislation would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to eight plants, four of which could be mature.
“Cannabis prohibition in Minnesota has been a failure,” Winkler said on the House floor before the vote. “The criminal penalties associated with cannabis prohibition have been unfairly applied to communities of color, especially Black Minnesotans.”
“House File 600 legalizes cannabis for adult use in Minnesota, expunging records related to past cannabis convictions,” he continued. “It creates a legal marketplace focused on allowing more opportunity for small- and medium-sized businesses in Minnesota and creates a pathway for social equity applicants to be part of a growing industry.”
The governor supports legalization, but the bill is still expected to face a significant challenge in the Republican-controlled Senate, where lawmakers have indicated that they’re more interested in revising the state’s existing medical cannabis program than more broadly ending prohibition.
However, Winkler said that, if the chamber does take it up for vote, he expects it would pass. At the very least, the momentum could spur GOP members to take up more modest reforms such as expanding the state’s medical marijuana program, he told Marijuana Moment in an interview on Tuesday.
“I think we are having an effect on them, and they feel the pressure to find a way to act because they know that they are losing this and the public will eventually win and get this,” Winkler said.
Part of winning over some Republican support involved adopting friendly amendments such as putting some cannabis revenue toward tax relief.
Winkler announced as the House discussion of the bill began that Democrats planned to accept “amended forms or final versions of most of the amendments that have been offered by the Republican side.”
“We think that further conversation on some of these issues is required,” he said, “but I will say that your engagement, your improvements to the bill are something that I’m committed to, and we will continue to make improvements to this bill as it moves through the process.”
The chamber ultimately adopted many GOP-led amendments, although in some cases lawmakers made further changes to those amendments.
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One, offered by Rep. Keith Franke (R), earmarks 5 percent of all revenue from legal cannabis for substance abuse treatment and prevention programs. Another, from Rep. Tony Jurgens (R), routes $1 million over two years to the Minnesota State Patrol to fund training for drug recognition evaluation training and other staff to identify drug use.
Winkler urged fellow Democrats to support both amendments, as well as a third amendment from Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), that would protect gun ownership rights for medical marijuana patients and adult cannabis consumers. Individuals would be authorized to refrain from reporting their cannabis use on state firearms-related forms. Lawmakers also approved another amendment from Munson that would protect personal data from the state-legal cannabis system from being shared with federal officials unless required by a court order.
The House also adopted an amendment from Jurgens to establish a pilot program that would test drivers for cannabis impairment using an experimental roadside saliva test. Lawmakers, however, first changed that amendment to prohibit law enforcement from arresting people based on the test result.
Other Republican-led amendments, however, fell short on the floor. Rep. Nolan West (R) proposed two amendments that were essentially gutted by further amendments from Majority Leader Winkler. One would have allowed local governments to opt out of licensing cannabis businesses, effectively allowing bans on the industry entirely. But West withdrew the proposal after lawmakers passed Winkler’s change to the amendment that limited local lawmakers to merely capping the number of licensed businesses to one per 500 of a jurisdiction’s residents.
West’s other proposed amendment would have allowed employers to refuse to hire job applicants if they were to test positive for cannabis use. But after Winkler’s amendment to the proposal—which would only allow positive tests to be grounds for a refusal to hire “safety-sensitive positions,” West again withdrew his amendment.
Lawmakers rejected a proposal from Rep. Peggy Scott (R) that would have raised the proposed legal age for cannabis to 25.
The chamber adopted a separate Scott amendment that requires the state to study legalization’s impacts on mental health, substance use disorder, education and other outcomes in the years following legalization. Initially the amendment would have dissolved the state’s legal cannabis program if those studies found racial disparities in those outcomes, but a subsequent amendment from Winkler removed that provision.
Another adopted amendment, from Rep. Susan Akland (R), adds a labeling requirement for marijuana products that warns that cannabis “may be hazardous to your health and may impair judgment. Do not operate a motor vehicle or heavy machinery while under the influence of cannabis or a cannabis product.”
A sweeping amendment from Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo initially would have made major changes to the House legalization proposal, gutting its social equity and community investment provisions. Garafolo, however, amended his own amendment to remove those portions and make other adjustments.
The House ultimately split Garafolo’s revised amendment, passing only a portion of it. The approved portion adjusts the makeup of the state Cannabis Management Board, putting more control of appointments in the hands of state lawmakers rather than the governor. It also reduces proposed funding for state oversight of the legal industry by 25 percent.
Prior to the House session, the chamber’s Democratic leaders held a press conference to urge passage of the bill.
“We have this bill before us today because Minnesotans have decided that it’s time to legalize cannabis and right the wrongs of the criminal prohibition of cannabis that has failed Minnesotans,” Winkler said.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL) noted that while people use cannabis at roughly the same rate regardless of their race, people of color in Minnesota are eight times more likely to be arrested on cannabis charges. “Continuing our legacy of racial injustice is simply not defensible any longer,” she said.
Hortman also took a shot at what she called a “dad joke” made earlier in the day Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who told reporters, “The marijuana bill in the Senate is up in smoke. That’s not going to happen.”
Majority Leader Gazelka reaffirms Senate's opposition to legalizing cannabis — "The marijuana bill in the Senate is up in smoke. That's not going to happen." He said GOP would be open to changing some penalties and expanding medical cannabis, but not recreational uses pic.twitter.com/RZXywpYphd
— John Croman (@JohnCroman) May 13, 2021
“We know that Senate Republicans are opposed,” Hortman said, “as Senator Gazelka’s dad joke revealed earlier today, but we’re continuing to move forward on this because Minnesotans need to know that we are fighting for them. They have come forward, they have told us that this is the right thing to do [and] this is the right time to do it.”
Winkler noted that even many Republicans acknowledge the system is broken. “Even the people who oppose the bill we have today, or oppose the idea of legalization, admit that the criminal justice side of our laws are doing harm,” he said, “and we’re seeing some willingness on the part of Republicans to move on that.”
Shows of popular support for the adult-use bill, especially among Republican constituents, has already made an impact, the lawmakers said. Republicans have already expressed a willingness to reduce criminal penalties around cannabis, they noted, and seem more willing to consider proposals to decrease the cost of medical marijuana and remove current restrictions on cannabis flower for patients.
We’ve come to this historic moment because of everyone who made their voices heard.
— Ryan Winkler (@_RyanWinkler) May 14, 2021
Meanwhile, time is running out to get the legalization bill through the full legislature before the session ends on May 17. Republicans on the House floor expressed frustration on Thursday that the body was spending so much time on a bill that may ultimately fail in the Senate.
“During this pandemic, and with just a few days left in session, here we are wasting our time on this marijuana bill that has no chance of becoming law,” Minority Leader Kurt Daudt (R) said during the floor debate.
State Attorney General Keith Ellison (D), for his part, called on lawmakers to approve legalization.
“Law enforcement in MN should be focused on serious crimes, not low-level cannabis offenses that lead to significant racial disparities in our criminal-justice system and injustice in our communities, and do little or nothing to keep us safer,” he said in a Twitter post.
Law enforcement in MN should be focused on serious crimes, not low-level cannabis offenses that lead to significant racial disparities in our criminal-justice system and injustice in our communities, and do little or nothing to keep us safer. #LegalizeMN
— Attorney General Keith Ellison (@AGEllison) May 13, 2021
Before reaching the floor, the legalization bill passed the Ways and Means Committee, Taxes Committee, Health Finance and Policy Committee, Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, Education Finance Committee, State Government Finance and Elections Committee, Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee, Workforce and Business Development Finance and Policy Committee, Labor, Industry, Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee and Commerce Finance and Policy Committee.
The majority leader’s legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
On-site consumption and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill. And unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas.
Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at 10 percent. Part of that revenue would fund a grant program designed to promote economic development and community stability.
The bill calls for the establishment of a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, which would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. It was amended in committee month to add members to that board who have a social justice background.
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.
Cannabis retails sales would launch on December 31, 2022.
Gov. Tim Walz (D) is also in favor of ending marijuana prohibition, and in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
Walz did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.