A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota advanced again on Monday, passing a fifth House committee as it moves closer to floor action.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) and other lawmakers filed the measure in February. 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 Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee approved the bill, which it amended, in a 11-7 vote on Monday.
“This bill, first and foremost, is a recognition of the major racial disparities in how our current drug laws are enforced,” Winkler told the panel prior to the vote. “We have similar cannabis use rates across populations in Minnesota, but we have disproportionate policing and enforcement as applied to African Americans in Minnesota—anywhere from four to 10 times greater arrest rates. We have whole communities that have been adversely affected by the war on drugs.”
The majority leader added that “we have an opportunity to create the kind of new industry that can be a model for not only how to be inclusive and how to repair past wrongs, but also to do so in a way that upholds very high environmental standards.”
Members adopted a number of changes to the proposal. For example, it now stipulates that members of a cannabis advisory council established under the bill could not serve as lobbyists while on the panel and for two years after they end their service.
Other provisions of the amendment stipulate that marijuana products cannot be flavored to taste or smell like anything but the plant itself. Regulators could also adopt rules to “limit or prohibit ingredients in or additives to cannabis or cannabis products.”
Another change lays out rules for marijuana delivery services, including requiring that they verify that a customer is at least 21 years old.
The revised legislation also creates a substance use disorder treatment and prevention grant funded by marijuana tax dollars.
This latest vote comes about three weeks after the House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee passed the legislation. Before that, it’s moved through 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 bill’s next stop is the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, which is scheduled to take up the measure on Wednesday.
Winkler recently said that he expects the legislation to go through any remaining panels by the end of April, with a floor vote anticipated in May.
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“Minnesotans are ready for cannabis, and we will keep pushing until it gets done,” he said.
Still, even if the legislation does make it all the way through the House, it’s 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.
After the New York legislature approved a recreational cannabis legalization bill—which the governor promptly signed into law—Winkler said that Minnesota is “falling behind a national movement towards progress.”
“MN has some of the worst criminal justice disparities in the country, and legalizing cannabis & expunging convictions is a first step towards fixing that,” he tweeted.
The majority leader’s bill as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. The majority leader, 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 Philip Steffan.