Legal cannabis bill clears first committee, many more ahead

A man at a table in a room with an audience
Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, presents his bill to legalize marijuana at a meeting of the House Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

A marijuana legalization bill took one small step in the Minnesota Legislature on Wednesday but has many more to go before it can become law. 

There is a lot packed into the adult-use cannabis bill — stretching from seed to sale. Lead sponsor, DFL Rep. Zack Stephenson of Coon Rapids, tried to sum it up to the House Commerce Committee, which sent the bill to its next stop by a divided voice vote.

“Our bill will create a safe, well-regulated legal marketplace where Minnesotans can grow, sell and buy cannabis if they choose to do so,” said Stephenson, who chairs the committee.

Stephenson’s bill is a Minnesota-specific proposal that aims to adopt successful practices while avoiding the pitfalls seen in other states with legal marijuana.

“We aren’t copy pasting from any other state,” he said. “But we are learning from both the successes and failures that have occurred in other states that attempted legalization.”

The basics are this: Anyone over 21 would be able to possess the drug and use it with limitations on smoking at schools, behind the wheel and other defined settings. A system for licensing growers, shippers and retailers would be set up and taxes would be assessed. People with prior low-level marijuana offenses could have those removed from their record.

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Politically, it stands a realistic chance at the DFL-controlled Capitol. Even Republicans didn’t try to slam the brakes on it right away.

“We’re not trying to play politics with this bill. We’re trying to make it better,” said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R- North Branch. “We are trying to do things that will keep Minnesotans safe and that will keep our communities safe.”

Neu Brindley was successful in adding a provision around packaging warning labels. Other proposed changes didn’t fare as well. There was an attempt to give local governments more power to impose licensing rules of their own.

“I can’t help but think that we allow a city to say that a company can’t sell flavored tobacco but they will not have the ability to say that someone cannot sell marijuana in their city,” said Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman.

A man a table waves a sheaf of papers
Rep. Tim O'Driscoll, R-Sartell, waves a copy of the bill that would legalize marijuana during a hearing on the bill held by the House Commerce Committee on Wednesday in St. Paul.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Edina City Manager Scott Neal told the panel local leaders deserve to know and vet who is trying to set up shop.

“It also gives us the key ingredient we need for law enforcement and regulatory control, when there's going to be a problem — and there will be a problem with a retailer at some point in the future,” Neal said. “It's just not an option for us at the local level to go point people to St. Paul and say ‘Go talk to state government about this.’”

Stephenson said he’s trying to head off a patchwork approach that might fence off access to legal marijuana.

The panel heard from people already immersed in the hemp and cannabis world about the opportunities they see forming. Attorney Calandra Revering said she’s hopeful too, as long as the build-out keeps equity in mind.

“What has ended up happening is states have created more limited licensed models, it's become much more expensive to get in the game,” Revering said. “The model often favors people with more money, like white men, and not people like me.”

The bill would provide start up grants and direct regulators to issue licensing with fairness in mind.

The hearing only scratched the surface of safety, impairment and addiction — topics that will probably get more attention as more committees debate the legislation.

Testifier Heather Bacchus shared how her son began using marijuana when he was 15. He had bouts in treatment. She believes it contributed to his death by suicide at age 21 when he was living in Colorado, where legal marijuana was easy to obtain.

“Legalization in other states misled him to believe that it was helpful, and it wasn't,” Bacchus said.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz said he would sign the bill if it reaches him, and he trusts sponsors will take concerns seriously as it moves through additional House and Senate committees.

“Trying to get legalization does not mean promoting people to use it. It's a recognition that it's out there,” Walz said. “And like most adults, we know that whether it's alcohol or other things, there needs to be campaigns around, there needs to be education and we need to be careful.”

MPR News political reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this story.