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Sole GOP lawmaker on cannabis negotiating panel shares concerns about rollout

Cannabis products in glass case
Recreational marijuana at the NativeCare dispensary at the Red Lake Nation on Aug. 1.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News 2023

Widespread cannabis dispensaries are one step closer to reality after the Minnesota Legislature at the end of session approved a bill speeding up the process for licensing.

Before the bill passed in the final weekend of the session, a bipartisan House-Senate panel settled on a licensing preapproval process for entrepreneurs to apply without having a retail or business space. People who have faced past harms because of the over-prosecution of marijuana laws, known as social equity applicants, will also get priority and early approval for those licenses.

Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, was the only Republican lawmaker on the joint committee and voted against the agreement. Five amendments he proposed also failed. He told MPR News Wednesday the lack of a property requirement and shifting from a merit-based to a lottery-based system to award licenses are among his top concerns.

Man smiles
Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine on April 3, 2023.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

“By that very nature, it’s all minimum standards, and basically, luck of the draw,” West said. “And without a property requirement, it’s very easy for people to game the system, because you can do a lot of applications under a lot of names, especially if you don’t have to have a piece of property attached to each one of those applications.”

Regulators have said the lottery will help get around potential litigation that has slowed the implementation of cannabis business licensing in other states.

The conference committee did approve stricter rules and anti-predatory language to ensure the people applying for licenses are truly the ones who would run the business, as well as disclosure of each person’s percentage of ownership. It also added a cap on the number of licenses.

There have been issues in other states that rolled out social equity licenses where those applicants who can’t get enough capital to sustain their business are forced to give up their share to investors — in essence, those larger, richer companies “rent a minority.”

In a use-it-or-lose-it provision, applicants who secure a license don’t have to utilize it for 18 months. That lack of urgency concerns West if Minnesota plans to stick to a timeline of getting the legal marijuana industry up and running in 2025.

Earlier this month, Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville told MPR News the “legalized and regulated industry is in its infancy, and we’re here to continue the work we started last year. Like any new industry, it will not be fully grown on day one. This bill works to ensure a successful market launch and support the industry and Minnesotans involved in this industry as it grows and develops.”

Regarding social equity applicants, West is “against the concept as a whole because it’s fundamentally unfair.”

He added, “I do support people who are convicted of a cannabis offense getting special treatment because they got the raw end of the deal. But just saying you live somewhere and you get special treatment — that doesn’t sit right with me.”

West is pleased that the definition of social equity applicants now extends to military veterans.

A senator stands and speaks into a mic
Senate bill sponsor Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, speaks as the marijuana bill’s amendments are debated at the State Capitol in St. Paul on April 28, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

As for being the sole GOP member of the conference committee, West says he was working in “good faith” and likely had “more influence than probably any Republican in the entire Legislature” on marijuana law, but is still disappointed by the lack of inclusion of his caucus’s perspective.

The final bill also includes $2.73 million for the Office of Cannabis Management for product testing and enforcement and provides cannabis patients and their caregivers more freedom around possessing plants.

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