Road map for legal marijuana in Minnesota already exists

Products with images of marijuana leaves on the package
A locked display case at a Lake Elmo gas station features products that contain THC derived from hemp that became legal in Minnesota this year.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

The debate over legalizing adult use of recreational marijuana in Minnesota has been going on for several years. 

One of the key voices in the discussions, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, won’t be in the Legislature next month because he didn’t run for reelection. But the House has already passed a bill that Winkler said should be a model for what the new DFL majorities do in 2023. 

The legislation passed by the House in 2021 came out of more than a dozen town hall meetings throughout the state.

Under that plan, the sale of marijuana would generate about $180 million in revenue for the state. Winkler and other supporters say their primary goal is not to increase tax collections. 

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“There is money to be made at the state level for tax revenue,” Winkler said, “But really all we're trying to do with cannabis is have it pay for itself. We want taxation at a level that will help address some of the mental health and chemical dependency issues, some of the drug recognition expert training that we need for law enforcement. We really just want to have this product pay for itself.”

Recreational marijuana use is already legal in 21 states and Washington, D.C. And Winkler said it’s not like Minnesotans aren’t using cannabis now. 

“In Minnesota right now there's a lot of it sold. It's widely available,” Winkler said. “Legalizing cannabis for adult use changes from a failed system of criminal prohibition to a regulated marketplace that can help people make better choices and informed choices about what they're consuming.”

Another objective, Winkler says, is to foster a legal marijuana marketplace that favors Minnesota businesses with an emphasis on helping minorities who’ve been disproportionately hurt by laws banning marijuana.

“You have a system of licenses, and you can restrict who receives a license in a way in this marketplace that you can't do and others because it is not federally sanctioned,” he said. “So we can favor Minnesota businesses. We can favor small businesses.”

Earlier this year THC products derived from hemp became legal in Minnesota. It’s a loosely regulated marketplace that has raised concerns about exactly what’s being sold in edibles. 

Supporters and opponents of full legalization both point to the hemp THC market to support their positions. 

“Look at the disaster that has been. There's no regulation,” said Bill Hutton, the executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association.

The sheriffs’ association is part of a broad coalition that opposes legalizing marijuana.

Supporters say legalization would impose a much more carefully regulated marketplace.

Chris Tholkes, who directs the Office of Medical Cannabis at the Minnesota Department of Health, is not arguing for or against legalization, but she says if it happens, products would be much more closely regulated, just as medical marijuana is now. 

“We know exactly who's produced it. We know exactly where it's being sold. We can do a recall of that product if we need to,” Tholkes said. “That's not currently possible with the other products. We don't know who is selling the products. The laboratory testing requirements are less stringent on the hemp-derived products than they are on the medical products.”

Hemp flowers harvested from outdoor grown plants sit in a container.
Hemp flowers harvested from outdoor grown plants sit in a container before being sold or processed at 5th Sun Gardens, a hemp farm in Lanesboro, Minn. on June 6. The plants must have under 0.3 percent THC content to be legally sold in Minnesota.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

Like the sheriff’s association, the Minnesota Trucking Association opposes legalizing recreational marijuana. CEO John Hausladen said legalization would increase problems with impaired driving, among other things.

“There is no tool roadside to determine if someone is truly impaired,” Hausladen said. “Yes, we can confirm if it's in the system, but we can't confirm that they are impaired. And as truckers, the last thing we want to do is put an impaired person behind the wheel. But any citizen can get behind the wheel if this law passes and be impaired. We only find out on the backside when something bad happens.”

Winkler counters by saying people are already driving high and that there are many types of driver impairment that can’t be measured the way alcohol consumption can. Winkler said Minnesota has laid the groundwork necessary to move forward with legalization.

“We really battle-tested and vetted this proposed legislation,” Winkler said. “And as Minnesota gets ready to legalize in the next legislative session, I think we have a product that is a very strong base for them to build on.”