Updated: April 25, 12:10 a.m. | Posted: April 24, 4:48 p.m.
Minnesota’s foray into legal marijuana neared its first major decision point as the state House moved to the brink of passing a bill that establishes a seed-to-sale program and streamlines a process for clearing prior criminal offenses off records.
The House debated the bill for nearly three hours Monday night but delayed a final vote until Tuesday.
The House vote that will come during daylight hours Tuesday– along with one set for Friday in the Senate – won’t end the debate. Differences in the two versions would have to be reconciled before anything reaches Gov. Tim Walz, who supports permitting adults over 21 to buy, possess and use cannabis.
But if a bill passes before May 22, Minnesota’s marijuana landscape would change starting this summer.
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“Cannabis will be no longer illegal this summer,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids. “The regulation, rulemaking and licensing process will take many more months. Beyond that you will of course also be able to home grow starting this summer, so it will be a while before Minnesotans can expect to see a dispensary open up.”
Opponents of the bill acknowledged the votes appeared stacked against them. They attempted to alter the plan to give local officials more say in how cannabis is sold, provide law enforcement more tools to spot impairment and reduce fallout from addiction and youth use.
“We saw sort of the consequences of rolling out the edibles last year with no framework and no guidance. And it was a train wreck,” said Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove. “And we don't want that to happen with legalization of marijuana because this will have even more significant consequences.”
As the House debated the bill, Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, tried unsuccessfully to increase the legal purchase age to 25, citing concerns over the drug's effect on brain development.
“Let's get it right out of the gate because if it goes in now at 21, it ain't changing,” Baker said.
Rep. Jessica Hanson, DFL-Burnsville, spoke against the change.
“We allow 21-year-olds to legally consume toxins like alcohol, nicotine and tobacco,” Hanson said. “We allow 18-year-olds to gamble, join the military, work in dangerous facilities and to serve those toxins to other people and, in my opinion, one of the more dangerous ones -- to get married, right? Unless and until we are going to stop all potentially life-altering decisions from happening before 25, we really can't start with cannabis."
The House also rejected an amendment that would have capped THC levels in cannabis products sold under the new system.
“We really need to limit the access that our young people have to these high potency THC levels because it’s really harmful to their brain development,” Robbins said, citing concerns among some in the medical community about the effects of high potency marijuana, but her amendment was defeated on a voice vote.
Republicans were also unsuccessful in trying to change the bill to allow local governments to prohibit cannabis businesses from operating in their communities and to have the power to issue or deny licenses for events involving cannabis.
Noting that the bill does require local governments to license cannabis businesses, Stephenson said he was trying to strike a balance.
“States that have allowed opt outs, that's where the illicit market continues to thrive and grow,” he said. “We need to have a uniform set of cannabis standards across the state to make sure that we're doing the best we can to curb the illicit marketplace and move to a legitimate marketplace with consumer protections and controls.”
The legislation also sets up a tax structure for both cannabis and products containing hemp-derived THC, which were given the state’s blessing last year. House and Senate sponsors differ over what that tax should be, with the House version starting higher and falling as the industry matures; the Senate bill keeps it constant.
Stephenson said the elastic tax fits with his philosophy that the taxes merely cover the cost of regulations and to foster a buildout of a legal market.
Another facet of both bills is an expungement process to wipe prior marijuana convictions off of records, automatically in the case of low-level crimes and through a crisper process for those with extenuating factors.
The vote on the cannabis bill in the House didn’t appear to line up along party lines.
One DFLer, Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona, has said he was against legalization after also having voted against the bill when it cleared the House in 2021.
Republican Rep. Nolan West of Blaine said he would vote for it. At a morning news conference, he railed against what he saw as flaws in the licensure, social equity goals, treatment of hemp products and other aspects. But he said voting for the bill would probably land him on a House-Senate committee to work on a final version.
West said he remains concerned about abuse and about security of a nascent industry given that marijuana lacks legal status on the federal level.
“Unfortunately, even legal marijuana businesses are cash businesses,” West said. “And we've seen in other states, they become targets for burglary.”
The bill would permit people to keep up to 1.5 pounds in their home. They could transport and give away two ounces legally to a person of age, but would need to be a licensed business to sell larger quantities.
Robbins said those amounts were concerning to her.
“Two ounces is enough for 168 joints,” she said. “The 1.5 pounds you're allowed to legally keep in your home is enough for 2,043 joints.”
Stephenson said the long-standing prohibition of the drug hasn’t worked and it’s time to let people make responsible decisions about the drug.
“This is a historic day for Minnesotans who have been waiting for cannabis legalization for many, many years,” he said. “We're going to get the job done this year.”