Legal marijuana talks start fast as time fades on Minnesota lawmakers

Two people speak to reporters
The lead sponsors of a marijuana legalization hearing, DFL Rep. Zack Stephenson (left) and DFL Sen. Lindsey Port (right), speak to reporters Friday after holding a first hearing of a panel working on a compromise bill.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

The merging of marijuana legalization bills began Friday at the Minnesota Capitol, with key lawmakers pledging to get a compromise plan passed this year.

Lawmakers adopted changes just a few minutes into an initial House-Senate public hearing on the adult-use cannabis legislation, reflecting agreements discussed in private since bills passed in each chamber weeks ago. The legislators involved have several more major areas to reconcile, including the tax rate and amount of local control.

House bill sponsor, DFL Rep. Zack Stephenson of Coon Rapids, told a packed hearing room of supporters and opponents that the panel hopes to get a finished bill soon.

“It is my expectation, intention, desire that this bill will be on the governor's decks before the end of this legislative session,” he said. “And I expect to deliver on that.”

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His counterpart, DFL Sen. Lindsey Port of Burnsville, said even when a 21-and-up use law passes, the system will be refined in the years ahead.

“It's going to be a continuing industry that there's going to be tweaks for years and years and years, just like we do with the liquor bills,” she said. “Twelve to 18 months for dispensaries to open, and probably as long as this legislature stands for continued work on the cannabis industry.”

People would be able to begin growing their own marijuana this summer, with limits on the number of plants and harvestable cannabis at any given time. That homegrown marijuana couldn’t be sold, but small amounts could be given away to personal contacts.

Zoning laws and local government involvement remain some of the trickiest areas to resolve. The bills differ on whether municipalities could limit the number of licenses based on population and how much of the tax revenue they’ll share in to aid in oversight.

Neither bill would let a city or county prevent retail sales entirely. 

“There's a lot of space between a complete opt-out situation and a complete state-driven process, and we're going to figure out a place that both of our chambers can meet on,” Stephenson said. “I think there is a really strong desire to make sure that we don't allow space for that illicit marketplace to continue after we transition to a legitimate marketplace.”

Port responded: “I cosign on that. That's exactly right.”

There are differences in the level of taxation, with the House coming into negotiations with an 8 percent gross receipts tax that could be adjusted a few years in while the Senate bringing a steady 10 percent tax.

And the committee must settle on the process and timing for automatic expungements for past low-level marijuana offenses and a petition process for people with more complicated cases. The House bill would start this summer while the Senate bill’s record-clearing would wait until 2025.

The lead negotiators say they’ll likely land in the middle.

“There's consensus around the idea that we want the expungements to happen as soon as humanly possible,” Stephenson said. “And I think that the bill will probably be structured in such a way as to ensure that those expungements happen as quickly as they possibly can, consistent with the technological limitations that exist in the world.”

Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign a marijuana bill if one passes ahead of the May 22 adjournment deadline.

The conference committee includes two Republican lawmakers. Sen. Jordan Rasmusson, R-Fergus Falls, urged a deliberate approach over a goal of finishing a bill this year.

“I just want to make sure given the importance that this bill has for Minnesotans and the dramatic impact it's going to have on their lives that we get it right and we don't rush it,” he said.

The panel didn’t take public testimony and doesn’t have plans to do so, with the sponsors noting the more than 30 public hearings as the bill moved along. But people could submit their thoughts in writing.

Some people — local leaders, mental health professionals and hemp industry participants among them — spotlighted specific bill portions they want addressed. 

Josh Wilken-Simon, owner of Legacy Glassworks, said he owns a high-end glass pipe gallery and low potency edible dispensary that has locations in Duluth and Minneapolis. He said local entrepreneurs need to be assured their efforts will be fostered and not overwhelmed by out-of-state companies.

“I am concerned that multi-state national cannabis operators will swiftly move in and dominate the new Minnesota cannabis marketplace with unlimited capital,” Wilken-Simon wrote. “I know the authors care deeply about supporting small Minnesota businesses and creating a craft cannabis marketplace.”

Others had general notes of encouragement, including letter writer Matt Eichenlaub of Roseville, Minn.

“Keep up the good work!” Eichenlaub wrote. “Relaxing marijuana laws is a step towards more individual freedom, more fairness and more choices.”