Days after the Minnesota House passed a bill to legalize marijuana, the state Senate is set to debate its version of the legislation Friday.
Legislative leaders tend to avoid bringing bills to the floor that might fail, so passage is deemed likely.
The Senate bill has already been discussed in more than a dozen committees. Unlike past years when a Republican majority blocked consideration of a legalization bill, DFLers control the Senate along with the House and governor’s office.
Public opinion polls have shown a majority of Minnesotans support legalization, despite concerns raised by opponents about traffic safety, addiction and other health consequences of marijuana use.
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Supporters say many Minnesotans are already using marijuana and that creating a legal market would ensure the product is unadulterated, squeezing out the black market in favor of legitimate businesses.
A long road to a vote
Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, said the committee review process means the bill is the product of extensive discussion, and was changed after getting input from supporters and opponents.
“I'm not aware of another bill in the Senate that's come forward so far that's had more committee stops, more Minnesotans weighing in, more input backwards and forwards,” he told the Senate Finance Committee this week. “So regardless, members, of how many questions you have here about what to be explained, I think that having Minnesotans weigh in is a hallmark of this bill.”
Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said supporters of legalization are some of the same lawmakers who support cracking down on smoking.
“I do find it interesting that we're here passing a bill that we know what it's going to do to addiction. We know what it's going to do to the health of many people. We also know what has happened in the past with the tobacco stuff, and we're choosing to go down the same trail,” Dahms said.
“I find it interesting that we make decisions that we openly know are bad for the state and bad for the system. Yet we're sitting here smiling and all excited to be able to vote for this bill. I'm going to be a strong no vote on this bill.”
Differences in the House and Senate marijuana bills
In broad terms, the House and Senate bills look alike.
Both would set up a system to regulate, cultivate and tax marijuana in Minnesota for use by people age 21 and above.
Both would allow people to grow eight plants at home and to possess and share marijuana. And both would automatically expunge criminal records for people convicted of nonviolent marijuana related offenses.
But there are differences in the details of the House and Senate versions.
Right now, the Senate bill allows people to have up to five pounds of pot at their homes while the House bill limits possession to 1.5 pounds. The House bill imposes an 8 percent tax on cannabis products while the Senate tax is 10 percent.
Senate bill sponsor Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, said the proposed tax in her version is higher because of concerns expressed by local governments in committees about added responsibilities they would have to take on to enforce parts of the law.
“And through that process we agreed to raise the tax 2 percent and give that money directly to the cities and counties to aid in what will be an increased cost in enforcement and those sort of services,” Port said.
House authors have said they wanted to keep the tax low to discourage illegal marijuana sales.
Expungements, local government and licensing
Other differences include the effective date for automatic expungements. The House plan sets Aug. 1, 2023; the Senate bill doesn’t kick in until January of 2025.
And the Senate bill would allow local governments to limit the number of cannabis businesses, which would vary based on population size. The House version lacks a cap.
Both bills also include a “social equity” component, designed to ensure that communities who have suffered the most because of prohibition of the drug will thrive in the new regulated marketplace.
The legislation seeks to put a priority for licenses for people who live in low-income areas that have experienced a disproportionately large amount of cannabis enforcement and for military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis related offense.
While the 300-page bill creates much of the marijuana market, some matters will be left to a new Office of Cannabis Management to set rules around potency and testing.
Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Alexandria, said the public needs assurances that what they buy is safe.
“How do we ensure we don't have fentanyl-laced marijuana products coming in, which has really become a real problem in this country just while we're talking about testing?” Westrom asked Port in a committee hearing this week. “I mean, that's probably the most gross example we've got right now. That's just killing people, unexpectedly.”
Port said her bill puts an emphasis on quality control, safety labeling and education about the effects of using marijuana.
“The number one thing that we can do to stem the flow of fentanyl-laced and dangerous products that we don't know what they contain is to legalize and regulate where we are seeing those dangerous products is not on regulated shelves in other states. It's not in the low dose products that we have for sale,” Port said. “It is in what's being sold on the streets. It is the illicit market.”