Minnesota House passes marijuana bill, more hurdles ahead

Pruning plants
A marijuana plant was pruned at LeafLine Labs in Cottage Grove, Minn. Wednesday, June 17, 2015. The lab is one of two Minnesota facilities producing medicinal marijuana.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Updated: April 26, 8:55 a.m. | Posted: April 25, 2:22 p.m.

The Minnesota House kept a marijuana legalization push on course Tuesday, voting 71-59 for a bill that would permit cultivation, distribution and sales as well as home growth of cannabis.

Two Republicans joined all but one DFLer in supporting the bill, with others saying they could eventually get on board if more changes they want are made.

Advocates cheered the vote. 

“Minnesotans have told us loud and clear that prohibition is the problem, not cannabis,” said Rep. Jessica Hanson, DFL-Burnsville. “And that they expect us to bring an end to the sinister days of prohibition and create a safe, legal, regulated market that promotes equity and reparation for our errors of the past.” 

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Opponents were more glum.

“Unleashing this on Minnesota is not something to celebrate,” said Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, just ahead of the vote. “The people who are opposed to this bill are not trying to hold people down or harm people institutionally.”

A state rep speaks into a mic on the House floor.
Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, speaks in the Minnesota House at the State Capitol in St. Paul during session on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

It’s not the first time the House has taken such a step. Two years ago, the DFL-controlled chamber passed a marijuana bill only to see it stall out in the Republican Senate. 

Now with the DFL in charge of the full Capitol agenda, prospects have improved. All eyes are on a few DFL senators who haven’t publicly committed to voting for the bill when it is scheduled to come up on Friday.

Even if it passes there, some key differences between the versions will prompt further negotiation. They include:

Possession limits

The House bill allows people to grow up to eight plants at home, with only four flowering at once. The at-home limit for possession is 1.5 pounds, with the public-place possession limit at two ounces.

The Senate bill matches the House in what can be grown at home and can be possessed and transported in public. But the Senate version includes a 5 pound at-home possession limit.

Tax rates

The House bill starts the gross receipts tax on cannabis products at 8 percent and allows for it to be adjusted downward after four years. All of the money goes to the state’s general fund.

The Senate bill imposes a 10 percent tax on cannabis products, with 75 percent of proceeds going into the state’s treasury and the rest to a cannabis-related local aid account. Both bills bar additional local taxes.

Criminal expungement

Both bills would set up a system to automatically clear the records of prior low-level marijuana convictions and make it easier for people to petition to have other crimes wiped away.

The House plan sets an Aug. 1, 2023 effective date for the automatic expungements; the Senate bill doesn’t kick in there until January of 2025.

License limits

The Senate bill would let local governments limit the number of cannabis businesses, which would vary based on population size. The House version lacks a cap.

Debate over the bill has delved into the legal purchase age, which remained at 21 years old despite efforts to push it to 25. Legislators have tangled over the amount of money that will be available for drug abuse programs. And lawmakers have discussed the availability of methods to detect driver impairment, although no sanctioned oral fluid test currently exists.

“Minnesota needs to be protected,” said Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, an emergency medical technician who spoke of responding to crashes involving impaired motorists. “This isn't about fun. This is about lives.”

Rep. Nolan West, a Blaine Republican who joined with DFLers in voting for the bill, viewed the safety question differently.

“Do you know what makes it actually dangerous is prohibiting it,” he said. “Because then when you have to go down the street alley and buy your little dime bag of weed that puts you in a place where somebody might be selling heroin. They might be selling Adderall. They might be selling a litany of incredibly dangerous narcotics.”

The House consideration, which spanned several hours over two days, also keyed in on what power local leaders would have to control sales within their borders.

Neither bill allows local ordinances that would bar all sales, although reasonable restrictions on the time and place where marijuana businesses crop up are allowed.

Opponents of the bill said some communities want nothing to do with legal marijuana but would be forced to allow retail businesses.

“We're gonna say, ‘You know what? Stick this bill in your pipe and smoke it and take it because we know best,’” said Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent. “That's what you're telling these small towns to do with this bill. We're gonna stick it down your throat and you're gonna like it. And if you don't like it and you say, ‘Fly a kite, state Legislature.’ We’re going to open you up to litigation.”

Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, said he was trying to strike a balance in his bill.

“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.”

A man walks past seated representatives
Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, walks through the House floor at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Monday. Stephenson is the chief sponsor of the House bill to legalize marijuana.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Rules around who gets a license to open legal cannabis businesses were also a flashpoint in the House debate.

Despite voting for the bill, West said some of the social equity rules to elevate applicants with disadvantaged backgrounds are misplaced. He said it stacks the deck for some license applicants.

“This kind of woke stuff is not what people thought when they thought the DFL was going to legalize recreational cannabis. They thought, ‘Hey, I can go buy weed now! This is great. I can't wait,’” West said. “But now you have this weird social equity ideology shoved into this where it has no business being.”

Hanson said it's a matter of justice for communities most affected by prior policies around marijuana. 

“There is every moral reason to keep this in our bill,” she said.

The application standards remained in the bill after a voice vote.

Gov. Tim Walz said he supports legalization and would sign a bill if the Legislature sends him one. At a press conference Tuesday, Walz said he's optimistic that the state Senate will follow suit so he can sign a bill into law.

"I think most folks understand prohibition hasn't worked,” Walz said. “The ability to be able to regulate, know what's in this stuff, be able to tax it and have that regime in place seems to make more sense."

The Senate is expected to vote on its version of the bill on Friday.

MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik contributed to this report.