The state of marijuana in Minnesota

A marijuana jar for sale.
A worker holds up a jar with marijuana offered for sale at Montana Advanced Caregivers, a medical marijuana dispensary, in Billings, Mont., in November 2020.
Matthew Brown | AP Photo 2020

Updated: 7 p.m.

Minnesota legalized marijuana for medical use in 2014. So, is the policy working for people whose health is suffering and can be treated by medical grade marijuana? Will the efficacy of the medical marijuana policy matter to the possible legalization of recreational marijuana?

States like Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2012 and have seen unprecedented revenue from that law. The money is going to education and other  community needs. Have there been unintended consequences or problems? What are they?

Gov. Tim Walz is in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Who is opposed? And why? Is there a pathway to legalize recreational marijuana use in Minnesota?

On Wednesday, host Angela Davis talked to a policy expert and activist about the state of marijuana in Minnesota from medical usage to recreation.

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  • Beau Kilmer is the McCauley chair in drug policy innovation and the director, of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

  • Ryan Winkler represents four suburban Hennepin County communities in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and is currently running for Hennepin County attorney. He is the chief author of Minnesota’s cannabis legalization bill (HF600), which would legalize and regulate, while expunging most cannabis convictions

Hear their conversation using the audio player above and read the highlights below.

Medical marijuana use with a recommendation from health care providers goes back to the mid-1990s in the U.S., said Kilmer. Legislation that legalized medical marijuana in Minnesota in 2014 was restrictive, Winkler added. Those approved to participate in the program had certain conditions, including cancer. They couldn’t use the smokable version of marijuana.

“Our medical program was too expensive, and that meant that it was not accessible for a lot of people,” Winkler said.

He said that following input from seniors and parents who had to find alternatives to the medical marijuana program because they couldn’t afford it, the legislation changed in 2021 to expand access to medical cannabis and reduce its cost. That will take effect this spring.

“I live with chronic pain, and this is one of the most effective products I have found,” said one caller, TJ from St. Paul. “But it’s prohibitive from so many people being able to use it because it’s so expensive.”

Winkler hopes that decriminalizing marijuana will improve safe, affordable access and help to address racial disparities associated with enforcement of drug laws.

“The criminal justice system approach to dealing with cannabis creates more harms than cannabis does itself,” he said. “We can do all of the good to address the harms of cannabis without incarcerating people, without using the criminal justice system to lock people up, or provide collateral consequences that can last a lifetime, for a product that most people think should be legal.”

Kilmer said that revenue from marijuana sales in other states has been used to cover the cost of law enforcement, regulation or health care for low-income individuals. Winkler said that right now, discussions about legalizing marijuana in Minnesota are focused on access.

“We’re trying to keep taxes as low as we can,” he said.

In Sandstone, Minn., a listener, Angela, called in to share her perspective as a hemp farmer.

“Including the Black community — Black and Indigenous communities in particular, who have most suffered from the prohibition on cannabis — is going to be really important as we’re thinking about putting together a cannabis program,” she said.

She said that including local farmers in marijuana production and sales can have a positive impact on prices, too.

“Our approach is really just to provide licenses to small and medium-sized businesses, and to limit access to the Minnesota marketplace for a number of years from out-of-state large companies until those smaller businesses can get established and up and running,” said Winkler.

Some are worried about the effect that legalization could have on things like adolescent health and on public safety. Katie, a pediatrician in Minneapolis, called in to share her concerns.

“I think we’ve got really good evidence that it is safe and effective for chronic pain in adults whose brains are fully developed and complete. Teenagers have brains that continue to develop into their mid-20s, even into their early 30s, and we have evidence, and we know that marijuana disrupts that process,” she said.

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to addiction, too, she added.

Data suggests that many Minnesota teenagers already have access to marijuana, Winkler said. He hopes that legalization will allow for better education within a regulated system, so that teenagers and their parents know more about how and when it should be used — only for medical purposes and with a prescription from a health care provider, for those under the age of 21.

Responding to public safety concerns, he said “there are a lot of people using cannabis every day in Minnesota and driving and using mood altering substances and driving. What we are not seeing is that legalization is suddenly leading to a big rash of traffic fatalities.”