A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota will receive its first hearing in a House committee next week, and legislative leaders are encouraging the public to participate as they solicit testimony on the proposal.
The announcement comes about a week after the cannabis reform legislation was filed by 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 House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee will meet to consider the bill on February 17. Rep. Zack Stephenson (D), who chairs that panel, said in a statement that as a former prosecutor, he’s “seen firsthand the amount of resources the state expends on current cannabis restrictions.”
“We ought to be strategic in where these resources are going so we can be efficient in how we address more pressing public safety needs,” he said.
Winkler said that the state’s existing marijuana laws “are doing more harm than good” and that a “responsibly regulated market is better than an illegal market.”
“With neighboring states like South Dakota approving adult-use cannabis by voter referendum, we must make policy that serves Minnesotans,” he said.
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The leader’s bill is 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 the legislature, however.
Under the proposal, 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 also be permitted. 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.
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.
Gov. Tim Walz (D) is also in favor of ending marijuana prohibition, and last month he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice.
Beyond providing the state with needed tax revenue, he said legalization would also help address “the equity issue and, quite honestly, the racial impact of our cannabis laws.”
The governor did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however, as his counterparts in some other states have.
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.
The Republican-controlled Senate remains an obstacle to reform, with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R) saying recently that his caucus is “focused on the Minnesota Priorities that balance the budget without raising taxes, safely reopen schools and businesses to recover our economy, and support families” and that he “would not consider legalizing recreational marijuana as a Minnesota priority.”
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 Brian Shamblen.