Minnesota Republican lawmakers are asking the governor and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate to convene a “narrowly tailored special session” to address what they view as unintended consequences of a marijuana legalization law that takes effect on Tuesday, citing concerns about policies on underage possession and public consumption.
In a letter sent to Gov. Tim Walz (D), Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic (D) and House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) on Friday, 20 GOP lawmakers said that they were deeply concerned about recent reporting suggesting that the cannabis law “effectively legalized marijuana for children.”
“Legal consequences are a significant and important deterrent from youth addiction and can help avoid more grave issues later in life,” they said. “This legislation deliberately took away an important tool for parents, law enforcement, and local communities to keep kids from harming themselves or others.”
The Democratic sponsors and staff who worked on the legalization bill did intend to remove criminal penalties for underage possession, in tandem with creating a regulated market for adults and promoting education to deter youth use. They say that criminalizing anyone over possession doesn’t achieve the goal of eliminating the illicit market. But despite their intent and the GOP concerns, the reporting that seemed to be cited in the new letter has been updated, as it appears separate statute would continue to make possession by people under 21 a default petty misdemeanor regardless of the broader legalization law.
Drug policy reform advocate and lobbyist Kurtis Hanna pointed MinnPost to the statute. It says that activities that are illegal—but for which there are no clear penalties—are automatically considered petty misdemeanors, punishable by a civil citation and fine of up to $300, without the threat of jail time.
That would seem to apply to underage marijuana possession, as the new law didn’t affirmatively make that activity legal and simply removed penalties. But given the legislature’s intent, it’s possible the matter may need to be settled in court.
“Democrats’ marijuana legalization is only in the beginning stages but problems have already emerged from this hastily crafted piece of legislation,” the Republicans’ letter says. “We urge you to agree to a narrowly tailored special session to address several glaring issues already confounding parents and local communities,” they said.
Teddy Tschann, a spokesperson for the governor, told KSTP-TV that “it’s illegal for minors to use marijuana today and it will be illegal for minors to use marijuana after this law goes into effect.”
“Any minor caught consuming or possessing marijuana could be charged with a petty misdemeanor, and any adult caught selling marijuana to a minor could be subject to jail time,” he said. This group of Republican legislators should stop implying otherwise.”
Hanna, a public policy and government relations specialist with the cannabis consulting firm Blunt Strategies, told Marijuana Moment on Friday that since the “main thrust” behind the GOP request “seems to be based on a misinterpretation of what the cannabis legalization bill does,” it doesn’t appear that a special session is warranted.
That said, in addition to reinstating criminal penalties for underage possession, the lawmakers said they want also “broader and permanent regulatory authority over the sale, possession, and consumption of marijuana, and impose greater limits on smoking and vaping of marijuana in public places.”
Additionally, they said the special session should be used to close what they’re describing as a “loophole” in the law that they say allows the illicit market to “flourish” during the transition from prohibition to the launch of regulated sales, which isn’t expected to happen until 2024 at earliest. Marijuana becomes legal to possess and cultivate for adult on Tuesday—and a state expungement board will also be formally established that day—but regulators will need time to develop licensing rules to get shops opened.
“These are basic, responsible steps that can be taken now to avoid larger problems in the future,” the letter says. “We know from last year’s hastily conceived legalization of low-dose THC consumables that poorly crafted laws lead to confusion and frustration.”
“If the legalization of recreational marijuana is to succeed in a responsible and safe manner, a special session is necessary to address these concerns before the Minnesota Legislature reconvenes in February 2024,” it concludes. “We stand ready and willing to work with you on solutions that protect our kids and communities.”
Sen. Lindsey Port (D), who sponsored legalization in the Senate this session, told KTSP-TV that the Republican letter is “outrageous” and “an attempt to use fearmongering and misinformation to stall the implementation of this bill.”
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Meanwhile, the governor is actively looking to hire a director to oversee the state’s new marijuana regulatory agency.
Also, the state Supreme Court last month initiated a search for a designee to sit on the Cannabis Expungement Board that will facilitate record sealing for people with eligible marijuana convictions on their records.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) separately said in an update published last month that approximately 66,000 cannabis records are expected to be automatically sealed under the legalization law. Another 230,000 are set to be reviewed by the Expungement Review Board at the state Department of Corrections.
The state has shown that it’s eager to expeditiously stand up the industry, and the governor said last month that Indian tribes in the state may be able to start selling to adult consumers sooner than standard licensees. In fact, one tribe has already voted to open cannabis sales next Tuesday to both tribal and non-tribal adults.
Even before Walz signed the reform bill, the state launched a website that serves as a hub for information about the new law. Officials have also already started soliciting vendors to help build a licensing system for recreational marijuana businesses.
Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators are pointing to the achievement on cannabis reform as a direct result of voters putting the party in the majority in both chambers after last year’s election.
The legislation that advanced through both chambers is an iteration of the 2021 House-passed bill from former Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), who this year served as campaign chairman of the advocacy coalition MN is Ready.
A poll released in May found that 64 percent of Minnesota registered voters support creating a regulated marijuana market, including 81 percent of Democrats and a 49 percent plurality of Republicans.
Two polls released in September found that the majority of Minnesota residents support adult-use marijuana legalization—and one survey showed that even more Minnesotans approve of the state’s move to legalize THC-infused edibles that was enacted last year.
A survey conducted by officials with the House at the annual State Fair that was released in September also found majority support for legalization. That legislature-run poll found that 61 percent of Minnesotans back legalizing cannabis for adult use.