Buying time, cities temporarily ban cannabis sales

Marijuana plants grow under artificial light.
Widespread legal marijuana sales are unlikely to begin in Minnesota until 2025, and many cities are holding off until they get more information from the state.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images 2018

Rochester is poised to join a growing number of Minnesota cities adopting ordinances that temporarily prohibit retail sales of cannabis until state regulations are sorted out. 

If approved by the Rochester City Council, the prohibition would last until January 2025. The city would join at least 10 others that have adopted or are considering adopting similar measures. 

The action gives city officials time to figure out what, if any, local control Rochester wants to exert over sales, such as limiting the number of retailers that can operate in the city, said City Clerk Kelly Geistler. 

“We're really just trying to preserve the space to get our ordinance in order so that we can be in lockstep with the state when they kick off their function, which they don't have a prescribed date. But they have indicated that that's likely to be January 2025,” Geistler said. 

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The new state law, which kicks in Aug. 1, allows people 21 or older to use pot and legally grow and possess limited amounts of it. Some people with previous possession convictions will have their records expunged. 

Cities decide where pot can be used and sold

The big issue for cities is legal sales of marijuana, said Kyle Hartnett, assistant research manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. 

The state law sets up a licensing structure and a state agency to regulate growers and sellers. But Hartnett says some decisions about where pot can be used and sold are left to municipalities. 

“The law allows cities to pass an ordinance making it a petty misdemeanor to use cannabis in public. So cities are trying to figure that out: whether or not they want to limit where cannabis can be used within their city,” Hartnett said. 

The limits would be just like rules on where you can smoke cigarettes in public spaces. Already, local officials in Duluth, Alexandria, Minn., and Detroit Lakes, Minn., are considering such measures. 

And then come longer-term decisions about where retailers can open, Hartnett said. 

Hartnett said cities are considering questions such as: “Where are these businesses going to be set up within our city? Where are the dispensaries going to be? Are we going to have manufacturers, processors?”

For instance, Hartnett said the law allows cities to limit the number of retailers to one for every 12,500 people in the city, with a minimum of one dispensary. 

State licensing, local enforcement

In Mankato, Minn., where city officials recently adopted their own temporary prohibition, the state process for licensing cannabis retailers is still a big question, said City Manager Susan Arntz. 

“It's a completely different process,” Arntz said. “In this case, the city is less involved in the licensing, whereas with alcohol and tobacco, we are more involved."

But cities will be responsible for enforcing licenses, Arntz said. 

“Until the rules are published, you know, there's a lot of unknowns,” she said. 

One place where retail sales are expected to start immediately on Aug. 1 is the Red Lake Nation, where their preexisting medical cannabis dispensary will be open to all. 

Because tribal governments are sovereign they can operate on their own terms, though the law envisions agreements between the state and tribal governments when it comes to selling marijuana. 

At a recent Rochester City Council meeting about the new law, public comment was filled with concerns about whether marijuana should be legal at all, and Geistler noted that's one area where Rochester officials have no jurisdiction. 

Even if Rochester eventually adopts the strictest measures around sales and public use, it won't change the fact that cannabis will soon be legal in Minnesota. 

“We're prohibited from prohibiting,” Geistler said.