Yet another Minnesota House committee has approved a bill to legalize marijuana in the state—the ninth panel to advance the legislation since it was introduced in February.
On Tuesday, the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee passed the proposal from House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) and other lawmakers. It 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.
The bill advanced through the panel in a 11-7 vote.
“Our effort as a society and as a state to use the criminal justice system to ban, prohibit and criminalize cannabis is a public policy failure,” Winkler said before the committee voted. “As a public safety and criminal justice matter, cannabis prohibition has had a disproportionate effect on communities of color, especially black Minnesotans.”
“Our [current] policy is a failure and it creates harm,” he said. “This bill is about correcting that harm of cannabis prohibition using the criminal justice system.”
Members adopted a sizable amendment before approving the measure. It includes revisions to treat possession in excess of the limit differently if the marijuana was obtained from an illegal versus legal source and eliminate a provision that penalizes people for having an open package of cannabis in a passenger compartment of a vehicle.
Rather than enact a blanket prohibition on public use in the state, the amended legislation now allows local governments to impose such restrictions, provided that the penalty is a petty misdemeanor and the definition of a “public” space is consistent with statute. In addition to expunging prior cannabis convictions, the bill now stipulates that courts must vacate and dismiss records for low-level possession cases.
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Tuesday’s vote is the latest development in a long series of committee actions that is expected to culminate in a floor vote next month. Last week, the House Education Finance Committee cleared the legislation.
Before that, it passed the State Government Finance and Elections Committee, Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, the Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, the Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee, the Workforce and Business Development Finance and Policy Committee, the Labor, Industry, Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee and the Commerce Finance and Policy Committee.
The next stop is the Health Finance and Policy Committee.
If the bill does make it all the way through the House, it’s still expected to face a significant challenge in the Republican-controlled Senate, where lawmakers have signaled that they’re more interested in revising the state’s existing medical cannabis program than enacting legalization of adult use.
The majority leader’s bill 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 legislation, 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.