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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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Senator Touts New Marijuana Legalization Bill In Floor Speech On Racial Justice

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Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) talked up her new marijuana legalization bill during a speech on racial justice that she delivered on the Senate floor on Thursday.

The senator, whose “Substance Regulation and Safety Act” was introduced late last month, said that ending cannabis prohibition could help law enforcement devote more resources to serious crimes, rather than continue to criminalize people in a racially disparate manner.

“We could actually improve public safety by devoting resources to combating violent crime, rather than over-enforcing low-level offenses in communities of color. Let’s think about what this means for marijuana offenses,” Smith said. “The federal marijuana prohibition is a failed policy that contributes to mass incarceration and over-policing of communities of color.”

“White and black people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but a black person is almost four times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense. The federal government is behind both state law and public opinion. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia already allow some type of marijuana use, despite the longtime federal prohibition.

While the senator recently introduced her own legalization bill, she also called on Congress to pass a separate reform bill that she’s cosponsored: the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act.

The legislation “would address the devastating impact on communities of color of a war on drugs by expunging marijuana-related convictions and then reinvesting in community,” she said.

“It is time to legalize marijuana, and we should do it in a practical and commonsense way that protects the health and safety and the civil rights of our communities.”

Watch the senator discuss cannabis policy and racial justice below: 

Her own bill, meanwhile, “would ensure that marijuana is regulated to protect the health and the safety of youth, of consumers and of drivers,” she said. “We do this without replicating the racist enforcement patterns of our current drug policy.”

Neither piece of legislation has advanced in the Republican-controlled Senate so far. The House version of the MORE Act cleared the Judiciary Committee last year, however, and a committee chairman’s staffer told Marijuana Moment last month that there are plans in the works to get it to the floor for a vote in September.

During her speech, Smith also discussed a number of other proposals concerning policing reform and racial justice. She announced the introduction of another new bill that she says “would help, state, local and tribal governments reimagine policing in their communities by funding innovative projects and best practices that will transform how we deliver public safety and other social services.”

The senator’s marijuana legalization bill would federally deschedule cannabis, require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop rules that treat the substance in the same way as tobacco, create a national research institute to evaluate the risks and benefits of use, require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to impose quality control standards and mandate that the Department of Transportation study methods for detecting THC-impaired driving.

The descheduling provisions “are retroactive and shall apply to any offense committed, case pending, or conviction entered, and, in the case of a juvenile, any offense committed, case pending, or adjudication of juvenile delinquency entered, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of this Act,” the text of the bill states.

HHS would have to come up with a “national strategy to prevent youth use and abuse of cannabis, with specific attention to youth vaping of cannabis products.” Further, text of the legislation states that the department would be required to “regulate cannabis products in the same manner, and to the same extent,” as it does with tobacco.

That includes “applying all labeling and advertising requirements that apply to tobacco products under such Act to cannabis products.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be tasked with working with other agencies to develop policies on allowing marijuana imports and exports.

The legislation further contains racial justice provisions. For example, HHS would have to consult with “consult with civil rights stakeholders” to determine “whether cannabis abuse prevention strategies and policies are likely to have racially disparate impacts” within 100 days of the bill’s enactment.

The Department of Transportation would similarly have to determine whether its impaired driving prevention policy “is likely to contribute to racially disparate impacts in the enforcement of traffic safety laws.”

Agencies charged with establishing these regulations would have one year following the bill’s enactment to finalize those rules.

A federal age requirement for marijuana sales would be set at 21 under the measure.

The legislation was introduced one day after the House approved a spending bill amendment that would protect all state, territory and tribal cannabis programs from federal intervention.

Smith’s focus on marijuana reform comes as lawmakers in her home state of Minnesota push for legalization, with a top legislator unveiling a comprehensive plan for legalizing cannabis for all adults 21 and older in May.

Further, it comes shortly after the Democratic National Committee rejected an amendment to adopt legalization as a 2020 party plank, with members opting instead to embrace more modest reforms. Advocates suspend that there may have been pressure for the panel not to formally embrace a policy change that is opposed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Oregon Officials Explain How Decriminalized Drugs And Legal Psilocybin Therapy Would Impact The State

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Oregon officials finalized a series of analyses this week on separate ballot measures to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use and decriminalize drugs while investing in substance misuse treatment.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission determined that the decriminalization initiative would reduce felony and misdemeanor convictions for drug possession by 91 percent, and that reduction would be “substantial for all racial groups, ranging from 82.9% for Asian Oregonians to approximately 94% for Native American and Black Oregonians.”

Overall, the policy change would result in a 95 percent drop in racial disparities for possession arrests, the panel projects.

“The CJC estimates that IP 44 will likely lead to significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests.”

The conviction estimate was included in the panel’s draft analysis first released last month, but the final version was expanded to include the arrest data as well. The new document also notes that “disparities can exist at different stages of the criminal justice process, including inequities in police stops, jail bookings, bail, pretrial detention, prosecutorial decisions, and others”—a point that activists hoped the panel would include.

That said, the commission noted it “lacks sufficient or appropriate data in each of these areas and therefore cannot provide estimates for these other stages.”

The new report, published on Wednesday, cites research indicating that the resulting “drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others.”

The decriminalization proposal was the first ballot initiative in the state’s history to receive a report on the racial justice implications of its provisions under a little-utilized procedure where lawmakers can request such an analysis.

This information will be included in a voter pamphlet as a factual statement from the secretary of state’s office.

“Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake, sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more,” Bobby Byrd, an organizer with the More Treatment, A Better Oregon campaign, said in a press release.

Both the psilocybin therapy and drug decriminalization measures also received final explanatory statements and fiscal impact statements this week.

For the therapeutic psilocybin legalization initiative, the Financial Estimate Committee said that it projects the measure will have an impact of $5.4 million from the general fund during the two-year development period. After the program is established, it will cost $3.1 million annually, “which will be covered by the fees and tax funds for the administration and enforcement of the Act.”

The explanatory statement says the measure “directs the Oregon Health Authority to regulate the manufacture, delivery, purchase, and consumption of psilocybin, a psychoactive component found in certain mushrooms, at licensed psilocybin service centers” and that a “person would be allowed to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin only at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”

It also describes an initial two-year development period during which officials will research and make recommendations on “the safety and efficacy of using psilocybin to treat mental health conditions,” after which time the new law will allow “a client who is at least 21 years of age to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”

Sam Chapman, campaign manager for the psilocybin initiative, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “satisfied with the explanatory statement and believe it captures the thoughtful approach we took that led to psilocybin therapy being on the ballot this November.”

“Specifically, we were happy to see the regulations and safeguards that are built into the measure highlighted in the explanatory statement,” he said. “We also believe that the fiscal committee saw and respected our approach to keep the psilocybin therapy program revenue neutral once up and running.”

The drug possession decriminalization measure is expected to cost $57 million annually, according to state officials, but it will be covered by marijuana tax revenue, which is “estimated at $61.1 million in 2019-21 and $182.4 million in 2021-23” and would therefore be “sufficient to meet this requirement.” Cannabis revenue to cities and counties would be reduced under the measure.

The reform would also save money through reduced drug enforcement. “These savings are estimated at $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23,” the analysis says. “This will reduce revenue transferred from the Department of Corrections for local government community corrections by $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23. The savings are expected to increase beyond the 2021-23 biennium.”

The initiative “mandates the establishment of at least one addiction recovery center in each existing coordinated care organization service area in the state,” the separate explanatory statement says, and describes how they would be funded with marijuana tax revenue.

“The measure eliminates criminal penalties for possession of specified quantities of controlled substances by adults and juveniles,” it says. “Instead, possession of these specified quantities of controlled substances becomes a non-criminal Class E violation for which the maximum punishment is a $100 fine or completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.”

Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country: 

A measure to effectively decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics has officially qualified for the November ballot in Washington, D.C.

Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last month.

Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.

Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group, hopes are dashed.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.

Read the full state analysis of the Oregon drug decriminalization and psilocybin therapy measures below:

Oregon Drug Decrim And Psil… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

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Top White House Official Blasts Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ Coronavirus Bill

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Vice President Mike Pence’s top staffer on Thursday joined the chorus of Republicans criticizing House Democrats for including marijuana banking provisions to the chamber’s latest coronavirus relief bill.

Marc Short, who is Pence’s chief of staff and previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, discussed the COVID-19 legislation during an interview with Fox Business, and he described the Democratic proposal as a “liberal wish list” with “all sorts of things totally unrelated to coronavirus.”

“In one instance they have provided guarantees for banking access for marijuana growers,” Short said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus.”

He’s referring to language that was inserted from the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to protect financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

Numerous Republicans—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—have been critical of the provision, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.

The majority leader took a shot at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) this week after she defended the inclusion of the banking language and called marijuana a “proven” therapy.

Democrats, for their part, have made the case that granting cannabis businesses with access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview this week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.

“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.

While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.

The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.

Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.

In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.

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