Politics and Government

Recreational marijuana bill on edge of becoming Minnesota law

People cheer
Supporters celebrate as the Senate passes its version of the adult-use marijuana bill at the Minnesota State Capitol April 28.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Minnesota stood on the edge of joining the nearly two dozen states with legal marijuana after the House voted 73-57 Thursday night to pass the final version of an adult-use cannabis bill. A Senate vote is expected to follow shortly.

It’s a monumental shift in drug policy, even though people on both ends of the debate acknowledged that use is prevalent despite its status as illegal now.

Rep. Patricia Mueller, R-Austin, who opposed the bill when a version initially passed in the House last month, said she had come around to backing it despite having continued reservations.

“The people who care about it, they really care about it. And the people who are against it are really against it,” said Mueller. “But the people who are like me, this why this bill makes it difficult, because there's so many places in it that are very good. I'm very open to the idea. I have just a couple of concerns.”

Opponents spoke to concerns about marijuana being a gateway drug, the lack of an adequate roadside impairment test and unknowns about its effect on public health.

Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the landscape will change soon.

“On Aug. 1, possessing two pounds of cannabis in your home or two ounces of cannabis outside your home will no longer be a crime in Minnesota,” said Stephenson. “It will also allow Minnesotans to grow cannabis at home. Up to eight plants total four of which can be mature.”

Minnesota would become the 23rd state to legalize marijuana for recreational use; the state has had a medical marijuana program for nearly a decade that started with oils, pills and other non-smokable forms. Leaf form was authorized for that program in 2021.

But fewer than half of the other states allow people to grow their own, as this bill would.

Dispensaries offering cannabis products will be further away, perhaps a year to 18 months from now.

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 April 24. Stephenson is the chief sponsor of the House bill to legalize marijuana.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The bill up for votes this week differs from those that passed last month off the House and Senate floors.

It would:

  • Allow adults 21 years old and up to purchase, possess and use marijuana, although there would be penalties for providing it to minors.

  • Impose a 10 percent tax rate, which is lower than a lot of other places where it is sold legally. The proceeds would be used toward fostering the legal market through start-up grants and other regulatory steps. Eighty percent would flow to state coffers and the rest would be earmarked for local governments.

  • Enable cities and counties to cap the number of cannabis retailers based on population size, with at least one for every 12,500 in a jurisdiction. There would be a floor and communities could issue more licenses.

  • Expunge criminal records of past marijuana offenses. That automatic process for the lowest-level crimes would start in August but reach into 2024. More complicated cases would go before a new board for review.

Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, said he’s glad to see dedicated money going to municipal oversight, given that they’ll deal with complaints over odors and other nuisances that might arise. He supported the bill but said the next steps will be critical to determining the success of the launch.

“What we've seen in other states is this just goes bam! A lot of businesses get started right away,” West said. “We need to make sure this market is functioning because if the market is not functioning, that's what will open up the door for the black market to still exist. And the number one public policy of legalization is to eliminate the black market, because if it doesn't eliminate the black market, we really did nothing.”

West was among a pair of Republicans who was on a House-Senate conference committee that crafted the final version. 

Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, said it was a mistake for Minnesota to follow other states that have allowed for full-blown sales, not just reduced the criminal aspects of possession. He was resigned to coming out on the losing end of the vote.

“This marijuana bill has been holed up for so long. And everything in this bill, if you believe the press, the sky will be bluer and the birds will sing prettier and your clothes will come cleaner if we just legalized marijuana,” he said. “And I guess we're at the point where, okay, fine, let's get it over with. Let's quit wasting the time going through the same fight again, if you're so hellbent on going over that cliff.”

Stephenson directed his closing comments toward Republican lawmakers hesitant to vote for the bill out of fear of the consequences of legalization.

“Change can be hard and change can be frightening. And fear is an important emotion to listen to. Because fear can stop us from doing bad things. So when we feel fear we should pause and think,” Stephenson said. “But fear can also stop us from doing really good things. It can stop us from doing the right thing.”

In the final vote, one DFLer broke off from his caucus’s support of the bill and five Republicans crossed over to back it.

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