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.”
News: Majority Leader Winkler introduces adult-use cannabis legislation, will continue conversation after crisis ends.
"We made a commitment to introduce legislation this session, and we wanted to follow through on that commitment."
Full statement: https://t.co/JPOFGMsW49
— Ryan Winkler (@_RyanWinkler) May 5, 2020
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.
— Ryan Winkler (@_RyanWinkler) May 5, 2020
“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.”
USDA Approves Hemp Plans For Six Additional States And Three Indian Tribes
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has signed off on hemp plans for six additional states and three Indian tribes this month, with a new batch of approvals coming on Friday.
Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota each had their regulatory proposals accepted within the past two weeks, as did the Comanche Nation, the San Carlos Apache Tribe of Arizona and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
That raises the total number of approved plans to 69.
USDA has been signing off on hemp proposals on a rolling basis over the past year. Last month, it accepted plans from Utah and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians.
The South Dakota Department of Agriculture (SDDA) has received final approval by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the South Dakota Industrial Hemp Plan.
— SD Dept of Ag (@SDAgriculture) October 16, 2020
Illinois and Oklahoma were among a group of states that USDA had asked to revise and resubmit their initial proposals in August.
While the agency released an interim final rule for a domestic hemp production program last year, industry stakeholders and lawmakers have expressed concerns about certain policies it views as excessively restrictive.
USDA closed an extended public comment period on its proposed hemp regulations earlier this month. Its initial round saw more than 4,600 submissions, but it said last month that it was reopening the feedback period in response to intense pushback from stakeholders on its original proposal.
The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) said last month that the new 30-day comment window is too short and asked USDA to push it back, and it also issued a series of recommended changes to the interim final rule on hemp, which it says threaten to “stifle” the industry and benefit big firms over smaller companies.
All told, it appears that USDA is taking seriously the feedback it’s received and may be willing to make certain accommodations on these particular policies. The department’s rule for hemp is set to take effect on October 31, 2021.
In July, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to Perdue, expressing concern that hemp testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote to Perdue in August, asking that USDA delay issuing final regulations for the crop until 2022 and allow states to continue operating under the 2014 Farm Bill hemp pilot program in the meantime.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) also called on USDA to delay the implementation of proposed hemp rules, citing concerns about certain restrictive policies the federal agency has put forward in the interim proposal.
The earlier pilot program was initially set to expire on October 31, but it was extended to September 2021 through a congressional continuing resolution that the president signed late last month.
The senators weren’t alone in requesting an extension, as state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA in August.
Perdue has said on several occasions that DEA influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.
While USDA previously said that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, that decision was reversed last month. While the department initially said it would not even reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.
Two members of Congress representing New York also wrote a letter to Perdue in June, asking that the agency extend access to that program to hemp farmers.
Hemp farmers approved to produce the crop do stand to benefit from other federal loan programs, however. The department released guidelines for processing loans for the industry in May.
Meanwhile, USDA announced last week that it is planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the industry.
AOC Wants To Work With Republicans To Legalize Marijuana And End War On Drugs
Democrats and Republicans might be divided on a number of major policy issues, but Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said on Thursday that ending the drug war and legalizing marijuana are increasingly standing out as exceptions to hyper-partisanship in Congress.
The congresswoman made the point during a virtual town hall alongside cannabis reform ally Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), stating that since she took office, it’s been encouraging to see members on both sides of the aisle come together on issues concerning “civil rights policy and civil liberties,” including ending “drug prohibition laws.”
“We’ve been able to propose solutions on a wide spectrum towards decriminalization, towards legalization, and that is increasingly becoming a position that more Republicans are amenable to,” she said.
For example, her spending bill amendment to divert $5 million in funding from the Drug Enforcement Administration to an opioid treatment program was approved without opposition in the House last year, Ocasio-Cortez said.
“That’s defund before defund became a widespread demand that we heard this year—and Republicans supported it,” she said, referencing progressive calls to defund law enforcement amid protests over police killings of black Americans. “So there are some areas where you can find common ground.”
Blumenauer also said at the event that “part of why we are fighting so hard to eliminate the failed prohibition on cannabis is because that’s been a tool that’s been used against people of color in particular that has horrific consequences and helps fuel that prison pipeline that has wreaked such havoc on our communities.”
To that end, Ocasio-Cortez said that, beyond federally legalizing cannabis, it’s important for lawmakers to ensure that any regulated markets that emerge are structured in a way that encourages participation by communities most hurt under prohibition.
“There are different ways that we can go about legalizing cannabis in the United States, and you can go about it in a way that concentrates power in a [Big Agriculture] way that concentrates power in big banks and that cuts out small mom and pops,” she said. “And then there’s another path towards legalization where everyday people and especially the black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs can be at the front of the line of enjoying the economic benefits of legalization.”
“I think we’re just so past due to make sure that we’re legalizing cannabis in the United States and that we’re expunging people’s records from the absolutely unjust war on drugs,” the congresswoman said. “It is an incredible priority.”
New York Will Legalize Marijuana By April And Regulate CBD-Infused Drinks, Governor’s Advisor Says
The top marijuana advisor to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) says cannabis legalization legislation will again be introduced through the state budget in January, with the goal being to enact the reform by April. He also previewed state regulations for hemp-derived CBD products, including allowing infused drinks and food items.
During an interview with Canopy Growth Corp.’s David Culver on the company’s recently launched video series, “Under The Canopy,” Assistant Counsel Axel Bernabe talked about how efforts to legalize marijuana in surrounding states underscore the need for reform in New York. And he said the legislation the governor will be introducing will serve as a “model” for other states, prioritizing social equity and economic development.
In this episode of #UnderTheCanopy we speak to Axel Bernabe of @NYGovCuomo's office who answered our questions on New York’s upcoming #hemp regulations, #cannabis #legalization, and the Gov.’s pandemic response. Watch here: https://t.co/5SzWFMnFSU
— Canopy Growth (@CanopyGrowth) October 14, 2020
But he also recognized that neighboring New Jersey may beat the Empire State to the punch, as voters are positioned to approve a legalization referendum next month.
“We’re watching New Jersey closely. We’ve always been confident that we get to this before New Jersey, so if they pass the referendum they still have to have agreement between the governor the Senate over there,” he said, referring to necessary implementing legislation that will need to be approved if voters pass the ballot question. “We’re working on this. We’re going to reintroduce this in our budget in January. We think we can get it done by April 1.”
That said, a top New Jersey senator recently indicated that lawmakers in the Garden State could pass the enacting bill as soon as the first week of November.
Over in New York, Cuomo has included legalization in his budget proposal for the last two years, but negotiations have consistently stalled out in the legislature, with sticking points such as how cannabis tax revenue will be allocated preventing a deal from being reached.
“If Jersey can beat us to it, then they’ll get the gold star—but I still think we’re going to set the model here.”
Bernabe said he’s especially excited about the public safety and economic development components of the administration’s forthcoming legalization proposal. And he spoke about the need to ensure social equity for communities historically targeted by the war on drugs, adding that there will be some changes from this year’s version in light of other states’ experiences.
“I would say equity pervades the entirety of the bill. It pervades it on the licensing front, it’s on the revenue side and the use of funds and providing capital and loans,” he said.
Also in the interview, Bernabe talked about pending regulations for hemp-derived cannabinoids. While those who grow the crop for fiber, seeds and other agricultural purposes are covered under existing rules, he said the administration is “literally putting the final tweaks” on policies for consumer CBD products that will take effect at the beginning of 2021.
“We’re excited because we’ve taken the bull by the horns so to speak. I think people recognize that there are a lot of sectors or product lines that haven’t really had some thorough regulation attached to them,” he said. “You can pick a number of them but probably the most high-profile or obvious ones are something like vapes—so CBD or other cannabinoid extract vapes. Flower, even some tinctures, and foods and beverages.”
“How do you regulate that? What are the parameters around it? What’s permissible? What’s not?” he said. “We dug deep. I don’t know that we’ll get everything right. We had to make some calls.”
NY is on the cusp of opening their hemp market – but what went into the regulatory process to make this a reality? Axel Bernabe from @NYGovCuomo's office discusses this & all things cannabis-related in this episode of #UnderTheCanopy Click here to watch: https://t.co/5SzWFMnFSU pic.twitter.com/HEK351bG5o
— Canopy Growth (@CanopyGrowth) October 18, 2020
The administration official offered an example of a regulation they’re likely to pursue that other states have avoided: creating rules for cannabinoid-infused drinks and food items.
“We think of this in terms of consumer protection. Those products are already out there. There’s no sense in trying to pretend they’re not,” he said, adding that one way they’re planning to ensure those protections is to set a maximum 25 milligram CBD dose per serving.
“We’re really doing it across the board on this,” Bernabe said. “We’re really looking at every product class and trying to strike a balance between consumer protection and letting people have what they’re obviously using extensively for health and wellness.”
As the administration finalizes those rules, the state’s hemp industry also recently got some news about broader regulations. Since a congressional continuing rider signed by the president last month extends the 2014 Farm Bill pilot program for the crop until next September, the New York Agriculture Department said it will similarly allow hemp businesses to continue to operate under the existing program until September 30, 2021.
“With so much uncertainty right now, we applaud [the department’s] move to extend these rules,” Allan Gandelman, president of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association, said in a press release on Wednesday.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.