MPR News with Angela Davis

What the future could hold if marijuana is legalized in Minnesota

A person tends to cannabis plants
A worker tags young cannabis plants at a marijuana farm.
Charlie Riedel | AP file

Minnesota lawmakers could soon take a vote on whether to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana in the state. 

MPR News host Angela Davis talked with journalist Ricardo Baca, former cannabis editor at The Denver Post and the founder of cannabis-centric marketing and public relations agency Grasslands, and Jason Tarasek, an attorney and founder of the Minnesota Cannabis Law firm, about the future of legalized marijuana in Minnesota, how it would work and what we can learn from other states that have already legalized cannabis. 

Additionally, MPR News politics reporter Brian Bakst gave the latest updates on the bill in the state legislature to legalize recreational marijuana.

Here are four key moments of the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.     

10 main things to know about the bill

Brian Bakst: It's about 300 pages long. So it's not just a matter of saying “yes, Minnesota will allow it.” It's, “it'll allow it under these circumstances, on this timeframe, and here’s the business structure, the tax structure, et cetera.” Right now, the bill isn't matched up in the House and the Senate — there are some differences between the bill, so we can't say, “this is how it's going to be.” But some of the parameters are somewhat set in:

  1. You will be able to buy marijuana if you are 21 or older and possess it in your house up to a certain amount: In the House bill is about 1.5 pounds, in the Senate bill it's 5 pounds, but we expect that to change throughout the process and come closer to the 1.5 pound limit.

  2. You might be able to grow your own and have up to eight plants in your house with some flowering at different stages.

  3. You can't grow marijuana to sell it — this is only for your personal use.

  4. You could go to a store and buy marijuana. The potency is still to be determined; that's to be set up during a rules process. They want to make sure that this is left to some experts to figure out what is too much. There's aspects of it related to local ordinances and local enforcement.

  5. Right now, the state is saying, “We're going to set the terms.” Local governments might be able to set some ordinances around where the retail shops can be and other things but that's still a point of contention.

  6. There's talk about the business structure: How many various areas of the cannabis and marijuana enterprise can you be involved in? The growing, the delivery, the sales? There’s some talk that they don’t want too many people to be involved in all of these aspects — they want to keep it so the big players in the marijuana industry don't come in and just keep keep the smaller enterprises from flourishing here in Minnesota. That's been concern in other states.

  7. Minnesota authorized hemp edibles last year and there were some concerns that they didn't do enough to put guardrails around that, so the bill would address some of those but it would also put them under the tax structure that they're thinking about here in Minnesota.

  8. One of the main distinctions between hemp and cannabis is the potency. The hemp-derived THC has a lower potency, that's the concentration of the active chemical that gets you high, than cannabis, which has a potentially a higher potency.

  9. You could be able to buy cannabis in the leaf form and smoke it, which you can't do in a lot of settings. Minnesota has a medical marijuana program but that’s very limited. This bill would open it up to anybody 21 or older. You wouldn't have to have an excuse or a medical condition to qualify for it.

  10. This bill would also address criminal justice elements. In the past, you could be convicted for possessing or using or selling marijuana above a certain possession amount. This would expunge people's records automatically if they have only marijuana convictions and there aren't extenuating circumstances. And it would set up a process for people who have might have had other circumstances in their convictions to get their records clear.

What are some of the biggest concerns people have about legalizing marijuana in Minnesota?

Bakst: There's what to do about potential impairment concerns, whether it's in the workplace or on the roads. Obviously, there's no roadside test as you would have in alcohol where you could say this person is too impaired to drive. And so that is something that they're still trying to figure out as to how they will manage that. There's some money in the bill for drug recognition experts, the officers who can go up and say, you know, this person seems like they might be impaired based on on various factors. But of course, with marijuana, the THC can remain in your system for quite some time. So it's not as easy as just saying, you know, here's what your level is, at this point, we think you're, you're too impaired to drive. The same with, you know, whether employers can conduct their own tests or require employees in safety-sensitive positions to abstain from marijuana.

A lot of the parents who have been testifying have said that this has been a gateway drug to other substances that their children use and maybe became addicted to. They say that there is harm to brain development and some people have pushed for raising the purchase age to 25. There's folks really worried about the message it's sending at a time when society is trying to keep youth and others from smoking.

What’s the impact of marijuana legalization on teenagers and young adults?

Baca: The data coming out of state health departments, as well as the Monitoring the Future study coming out of the University of Michigan, shows a very stark picture. And that is: in every market that has legalized cannabis there, the youth use rates have stayed level, or even decreased. However, there have been a couple of studies linking cannabis use to increased psychosis. As far as I understand, these studies have been coming from a small sample size, and they really illustrate the need for legitimate research.

Any medical professional would say that people with developing brains, children, under the age of 21 through 24, they should not be consuming any substances. And I think that's a fair mark, recognizing that then when you're an adult, you should have the opportunity to choose what medicine and what intoxicants you choose to partake.

Jason Tarasek: We're increasing access for adults [in Minnesota]. Right now, marijuana arguably is easier for kids to get than alcohol, and that's because you have to go to a liquor store to buy alcohol. Frankly, if you are concerned about teens using marijuana, you should support this legalization bill because there is no evidence whatsoever that after a state legalizes marijuana, that teen use goes up. In fact, all the evidence shows that teen use goes down. And the fact of the matter is, it's called an adult-use bill for a reason. We do not want kids using marijuana. I do not want my kids using marijuana. But I can advocate for this with a clear conscience because I know this bill will make it harder for kids to get their hands on this. And the bill also allocates tons of money to study the problem with teens and using marijuana as their brains are developing. That is something we're concerned about, and that's why we're addressing it in the bill.

Tarasek: I think that the focus on social equity was something missing from the initial legalization bills in places like Colorado and Washington. That is something, frankly, I'm proud that Minnesota is not missing. We are laser focused on trying to address social equity with this bill. We are providing an advantage to what we're calling “social equity applicants” in the licensing process. We are giving an advantage to people applying for licenses from historically poor neighborhoods. We can't use race as a factor because that's unconstitutional, but we're doing what we can to try to level that playing field and try to account for the devastating impact of the war on drugs. Another thing we're doing is we have many different license types. Many of those are sort of smaller type industries like cannabis transporters, delivery people. We recognize that entering the legal marijuana market is a capital-intensive initiative, in other words, you need a lot of money and we're trying to carve out areas where perhaps people of color can enter the industry. And we're providing for grants through the legalization bill to help entrepreneurs enter this industry.

Your views on cannabis legalization

Listeners called and shared their personal experiences with marijuana. Here are some of them:

‘They had persistent psychosis’

I’m a psychiatrist and I was the medical director of the state hospital for adolescents in Willmar. So I saw a couple of adolescents who used cannabis on a regular basis and had persistent psychosis. Delusions, hallucinations, thought disorder, inability to perceive what's actually going on. They had no predisposition for mental illness, other than the fact that they were using cannabis on a regular basis.

— George M. Realmuto in Apple Valley

‘Cannabis is not an innocuous substance’

I'm a physician and addiction psychiatrist and the program director for training physicians in addiction. My perspective has to do with seeing the direct effects in treatment. I think we haven't talked as much about the addiction aspect of this. And I think as long as we have a more accessible substance, there is a sense that it is less harmful, and when it's less harmful, you see more use particularly amongst the youth. So it is not an innocuous substance. I certainly see the results in terms of developing addiction, impact on their mental health and specifically psychosis that I think Dr. Realmuto has started to address. Part of what we need to do, if this is legalized, is to train a workforce and to increase treatment. It won’t eliminate the black market. The black market is particularly good about undercutting whatever the cost is and increasing the potency, and as we increase the potency we know we increase the problems from marijuana.

— Sheila in Minneapolis

‘I would like to not be worried about what my neighbors think’

I'm one of these people that started smoking marijuana at 13 years old just for fun and enjoyed it. But in my career running heavy equipment and stuff, of course, I had to watch that. I broke my back in 1993. I got to walk again and have a life but I could never return to career. The opiates and all the other things that the doctors and the hospitals gave me did not help me as much as simply smoking marijuana, relaxing, thinking positively, having a good outlook on life and stress management helped me. I would like to not be worried about what my neighbors think or friends that just met me that, “Geez, he smokes marijuana.” I smoke it for pain. My mother was blind from glaucoma. I have been checked by my eye doctor for the last 15 to 20 years and he says: Terry without your marijuana use you would’ve had glaucoma.

— Terry in Cass Lake

‘My son is a THC addict’

My son started dabbing the high-concentration THC and he started hallucinating. He was looking in a mirror at a hallucination, plotting to kill my husband and I. The power of this plant has been disrespected. And I am so sorry to hear that the Minnesota legislators have a 300-page document funding this predatory, addiction-for-profit industry. These products are so toxic, they are causing severe addiction. The addiction rate in adults used to be about 10 percent of marijuana users. Now the National Institute of Drug Abuse is reporting 30 percent. Vulnerable populations like children and disadvantaged communities are preyed on by this industry. My son experienced many episodes of cannabis-induced psychosis. I had to get him out of Colorado. He did achieve three years of sobriety at one point, which cost us everything, but now because the hemp products are legalized here in Texas, he went back out, he's been using for two and a half years, and now he has the CHS, the cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. He is skin and bone, he looks like he's a meth user. He is a THC addict.

— Aubree Adams from Houston, Texas.

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