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Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says

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Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.

“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.

According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”

Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.

Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.

At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.

“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”

The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:

-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.

-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.

-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.

”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”

Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.

The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.

Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.

Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.

He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”

The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.

Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.

Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.

Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”

“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”

The majority leader’s legalization 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.

Walz 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.

The governor 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.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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