MN House passes legal cannabis bill; no future in Senate

A bowl of medicinal marijuana
A bowl of medicinal marijuana is displayed in a booth at The International Cannabis and Hemp Expo in 2010 at the Cow Palace in Daly City, Calif. For the first time in its history, the Minnesota House has voted to legalize marijuana beyond the current medical uses allowed in the state.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images 2010

The Minnesota House voted 72-61 Thursday night to legalize cannabis for adult use — a significant step for the legislation. But Minnesota is unlikely to join more than 15 other states in making marijuana legal because majority Republicans in the state Senate will likely prevent it from becoming law this year. 

Under the bill, Minnesotans 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to 2 ounces of cannabis in public and up to 10 pounds in their personal residence.

The bill creates a regulatory and tax framework for cannabis. A new Cannabis Management Board would oversee the regulation and also take charge of the state’s existing medical cannabis program. A recent change in the bill would direct excess tax revenue from adult-use cannabis into a tax relief account.

The DFL-controlled House held 12 hearings on the legalization bill; the Republican Senate held none and has no plans to take it up before the session ends Monday.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the bill addresses two of the DFL’s key priorities: racial equity and criminal justice reform. Black Minnesotans are more often prosecuted for marijuana crimes than whites, even though usage rates are similar.

“Criminalizing a product that most people think should be available, and continuing our legacy of racial injustice, is simply not defensible anymore,” Hortman said.

The prohibition of cannabis does not work, said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, the bill’s author.

“We have this bill before us today because Minnesotans have decided that it is time to legalize cannabis and right the wrongs of the criminal prohibition of cannabis that has failed Minnesota,” Winkler said. “It has failed Minnesotans, and it’s time for it to change.”

There is an automatic expungement component to the bill. It would wipe clean people’s records for any petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor marijuana conviction.

The DFL bill has gained some Republican support along the way. But most Republicans oppose it. They cite the concerns of law enforcement and the fact that marijuana is illegal under federal law.

Other Republicans complained about the DFL majority making a vote on cannabis a priority when work on the two-year budget remains unfinished.

Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, was among those who were concerned.

“We should be sitting here discussing budget bills,” she said. “Instead, we are sitting here discussing marijuana.”

The National Council of State Legislatures says 17 states, two territories and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to regulate cannabis for adult use.

Minnesota’s medical cannabis law has been on the books since 2014, but it allows use only of certain non-plant forms and for qualified conditions.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, repeated Thursday that he is not interested in legalization and it is not going to happen. Gazelka believes legalization for recreational purposes would bring unintended negative consequences. 

The top Senate Republican, however, added that he remains open to looking at additional medical uses and lowering criminal penalties.

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