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Top Minnesota Lawmaker Unveils Long-Delayed ‘Best’ Marijuana Legalization Bill In The Country

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It was mid-February when Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL) pledged to introduce what he’d called “the best legalization bill in the country” within the coming weeks. Shortly after, the state plunged along with the rest of the country into the global coronavirus outbreak, and marijuana reform was put on ice.

Now, as states begin taking steps toward normalcy, Winkler has finally revealed the promised bill, introduced on Tuesday with 33 cosponsors.

“Our current priority is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said after filing the legislation, “but after the town halls and discussions around this issue, we still wanted to put a strong bill forward. As we look to come out of this crisis as a better, stronger Minnesota, we need to continue working toward legalizing cannabis for responsible adult use.”

“We made a commitment to introduce legislation this session, and we wanted to follow through on that commitment.”

At 222 pages, the bill is an ambitious attempt to address some of the most salient issues around cannabis legalization in 2020, and it reflects an awareness of the challenges encountered by other states that have already legalized.

It would prioritize social equity and diversity in industry licensing, try to limit cozy corporate relationships and outlaw unregulated adulterants in marijuana products. The bill also sketches a vision for what Minnesota’s legal cannabis landscape might look like: generous personal possession limits, home cultivation, on-site consumption at licensed businesses and events and a focus on craft cultivation.

Leili Fatehi, campaign manager for Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, told Marijuana Moment the legislation was the result of months of hard work with Winkler’s staff. Unlike many other states, Minnesota does not have a system to allow citizens to put initiatives on the ballot, so going through the legislature is the only path for legalization.

“We’ve been working with Majority Leader Winkler and his team for nearly a year now to advance conversations in and out of the Capitol,” she said. “Today’s introduction of a comprehensive, equity-focused cannabis legalization bill is a big step for Minnesota and all Minnesotans who know we can responsibly legalize and regulate.”

If passed as written, the bill would allow Minnesota adults 21 and older to possess and transport up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana (and 8 grams of cannabis concentrates) in public places and keep up to 10 pounds at their private residence. Adults could grow up to eight marijuana plants at home, up to four of which could be mature, flowering plants. Gifting small amounts to other adults would also be legal.

A variety of cannabis businesses would be allowed under the proposal, including retail, delivery and event organizers. And unlike in a number of other legal states, local governments in Minnesota couldn’t ban licensed businesses. The bill says municipalities “may not prohibit the establishment or operation of a cannabis business licensed under this chapter,” although jurisdictions would be able to set time, place and manner restrictions on businesses’ operations. Retail and on-site sales of cannabis products would be subject to a 10 percent tax.

The legal industry would be overseen by a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, appointed by the governor. The board would also run certain mission-focused divisions, such as the Office of Medical Cannabis, which would operate the state’s existing medical marijuana program, and the Office of Social Equity, which would promote “development, stability, and safety in communities that experienced a disproportionate, negative impact from cannabis prohibition.”

Efforts to address the harms of cannabis prohibition are evident throughout the new bill. In addition to the Office of Social Equity, which would distribute grants to promote economic development and community stability, the program would prioritize social equity applicants when granting business licenses. The bill says that status as a social equity applicant—generally defined as living in a low-income area—must account for “at least 20 percent” of points when regulators score license applications.

Military veterans who lost honorable status due to cannabis-related offenses would also be considered social equity applicants. Past criminal convictions for possessing or selling marijuana wouldn’t count against license applicants unless they had sold cannabis to a minor.

The proposal would also expunge many past cannabis convictions automatically, without the need for individuals to file petitions in court. Records wouldn’t be destroyed outright, the bill says, but would be sealed from public view and disclosed only if ordered by a court or other legal authority.

“Minnesotans have been loud and clear that our current cannabis laws are doing more harm than good,” Winkler, who led an effort to host a series of town hall meetings on the issue over the past several months, said in a statement Tuesday. “By creating a regulatory framework we can address the harms caused by cannabis and establish a more sensible set of laws to improve our health care and criminal justice systems and ensure better outcomes for communities.”

The state’s voters and the governor have given indications they’re on board with the reform move in general.

At last year’s state fair, separate informal polls conducted by both the state House and Senate each found a majority of respondents in favor of legalizing cannabis.

Last August, Gov. Tim Walz (D), who ran on a marijuana legalization platform in 2018, directed state agencies, including the departments of health and public safety, to prepare for the change. “We will have everything ready to go,” he said at the time, “and we will be able to implement it in Minnesota the minute the Legislature moves this.”

Minnesota lawmakers introduced a bipartisan legalization bill during the 2019 legislative session, but a Senate committee voted to kill the legislation after even its Republican co-author said he wouldn’t vote for it but would instead support more modest decriminalization.

One reason the new Minnesota bill is hundreds of pages long is that it contains far more detail than many other state cannabis laws, which sometimes leave many issues to be hashed out by regulatory agencies’ rulemaking processes.

Details may be subject to change as the proposal moves through the legislative process. Legalization remains politically thorny in Minnesota and, regardless of the bill’s comprehensive approach, it’s likely to face a number of hurdles and proposed amendments once lawmakers gather to consider it.

Whereas Winkler’s Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party controls the state House and the governor’s office, Republicans have a majority in the Senate.

In other words, be prepared for the lengthy bill to draw even lengthier debate. Even back in February, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when Winkler first teased the legislation, he acknowledged it would be a long road to legalization in Minnesota, saying it was “highly likely that it will take more than one year to get it done.”

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Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

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Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill

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The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.

While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.

News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”

The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.

“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.

Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.

It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.

Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.

And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.

Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.

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

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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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Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’

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The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.

The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.

The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.

“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”

Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”

The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.

These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.

Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.

Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.

For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.

Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.

Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.

Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.

Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.

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