A marijuana legalization bill cleared additional Minnesota House Senate committees on Thursday.
The House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee passed the measure from Rep. Zack Stephenson (D) in a voice vote—the eleventh in the chamber to do so this session.
Later in the day, the Senate Labor Committee also advance the companion version sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Port (D) in a voice vote, making it the eighth panel in that body to sign off on the legislation this year.
“Minnesotans are ready for this change,” Stephenson told members of the House committee. “Our current laws are doing more harm than good.”
Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten (D), who presented the proposal on behalf of Port on the Senate side, told panel members that the legislation “is about allowing adults to safely and responsibly use cannabis” and that it “creates a regulated marketplace that is much safer than our current underground illicit marketplace.”
“I really care about this bill because of expungement and because of the fact that cannabis prohibition has caused immense harm in our communities in the criminal justice system,” she said, noting racial disparities in the enforcement of criminalization.
“When we legalize, there’s this responsibility to have expungement and to clear those records,” the senator said. “The other thing that’s really important about this bill is making sure that the benefits of legalizing cannabis go towards those who were most harmed by cannabis prohibition, so it’s ensuring that they get to participate in the new regulated market… For me, it’s about repairing harm and righting those those wrongs and addressing the racial injustice.”
With majorities in both the House and Senate and control over the governorship this session, Democratic-Farmer-Labor party officials are confident that legalization will be enacted in short order following the extensive committee consideration.
The governor recently released his biennial budget request, which included proposed funding to implement marijuana legalization and expungements, and made projections about the millions of dollars in cannabis tax revenue that his office estimates the state will earn after the reform is enacted.
Gov. Tim Walz (D) discussed his proposal in a recent interview, explaining why he’s calling for a tax rate on marijuana sales that’s nearly double that of the bill that’s advancing in the legislature.
That legislation is an iteration of the 2021 House-passed bill from former Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), who now serves as campaign chairman of the advocacy coalition MN is Ready. That group announced last month that it would be lobbying for the measure while leading a grassroots effort to build support for reform.
The governor has called on supporters to join lawmakers and the administration in their push legalize marijuana this session, and he circulated an email blast last month that encourages people to sign a petition backing the reform.
Much of the revised bills that are advancing through committee are consistent with Winkler’s legislation, though there are a few key changes, in addition to the newly adopted amendments. For example, it adds a new license category for businesses that sell “lower-potency edible products” under Minnesota’s unique THC law that the governor signed last year.
There would also be reduced regulatory requirements for those licensees, and they’d be able to permit on-site consumption if they have a liquor license, which is meant to ensure that shops currently selling low-THC beverages and edibles don’t face disruption.
At its Thursday meeting, the House committee adopted one large-scale amendment from Stephenson.
It makes a number of changes, including increasing civil fines for selling cannabis without a license to be higher set amounts or three times the retail market value of the products, changing penalties for selling marijuana to minors and amending provisions on driving under the influence or causing bodily harm or injury while under the influence of cannabis.
It also adds a representative of from the Local Public Health Association of Minnesota to the Cannabis Advisory Council, clarifies which information about cannabis businesses would be public or nonpublic, allows regulators to determine whether people with felony can be barred from owning or working at marijuana businesses rather than banning them outright, directs regulators to consider adding warning to cannabis products about the effects use has on brain development for people under 25.
It would further require the health commissioner to distribute educational materials on cannabis use to local and tribal health departments and add an appropriations provision to fund that activity, along with a number of other technical and formatting changes to the bill.
The panel defeated an amendment that would have reduced the amount of marijuana someone can legally store at home from five pounds to two pounds and reduced other possession thresholds to trigger increased penalties when possessing cannabis elsewhere.
The sponsor of an amendment to insert a zero tolerance standard into sections of the law concerning impaired driving or causing bodily harm or injury, without requiring that a person be shown as under the influence, withdrew the proposal without forcing a vote.
The same lawmaker also withdrew a measure that would have put the onus on state officials to make the case that someone’s gun rights should not be restored upon having a conviction expunged or resentenced, rather than requiring the person to take action to have their rights restored.
Stephenson told that lawmaker he would work with him to tweak the language into an acceptable form later in the process.
Another member withdrew an amendment to significantly increase funding appropriated to the Department of Public Safety under the bill, in part to support continuing education training for drug recognition experts. Stephenson also said he would work with that legislator on the details for a later addition to the bill.
On the Senate side, members also considered amendments at their hearing.
One approved amendment includes the legal cannabis industry in a list of sectors for which the labor commissioner convenes a group to formulate occupational competency standards and provide technical assistance on dual-training programs.
Another adopted change clarifies that employers can fire workers for marijuana use “if a failure to do so would violate federal or state law or regulations or cause an employer to lose a monetary or licensing-related benefit under federal law or regulations” and that employers can only subject workers to random cannabis testing if they are employed in safety-sensitive positions or as professional athletes subject to a collective bargaining agreement permitting such testing.
An additional successful amendment clarifies that employers may only prohibit workers from using cannabis while they are working or on-site.
A final approved change clarifies that state Health Department employees with the current medical cannabis program will not be displaced by its transfer to the new Office of Cannabis Management.
An amendment that would have removed provisions requiring cannabis businesses to have labor peace agreements was defeated.
The next Senate stop for the legislation is the State and Local Government and Veterans Committee. On the House side, the Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee is scheduled to take up the companion proposal next.
Adults 21 and older could purchase up to two ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to eight plants, four of which could be mature.
They could possess up to two ounces in a public place and up to five pounds in a private dwelling.
Gifting up to two ounces of marijuana without remuneration between adults would be permitted.
It would promote social equity, in part by ensuring that diverse licensing by scoring equity applicants higher.
Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension would be responsible for identifying people who are eligible for relief and process the expungements.
In addition to creating a system of licensed cannabis businesses, municipalities and counties could own and operate government dispensaries.
On-site consumption permits could be approved for events, and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill.
Unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas, though they could set “reasonable” regulations on the time of operation and location of those businesses.
Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at eight percent. Part of that revenue would fund substance misuse treatment programs, as well as grants to support farmers.
A new Office of Cannabis Management would be established, and it would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. There would be a designated Division of Social Equity.
People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.
The legislation as revised fixes an issue in current statute that prohibits liquor stores from selling THC products.
It also contains language banning synthetic cannabinoids, which is consistent with Board of Pharmacy rules put into place last year.
The House panels that have passed the legislation in recent weeks are the Health Finance and Policy Committee, Education Finance Committee, Human Services Policy Committee, Workforce Development Finance and Policy Committee, Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee, State and Local Government Finance and Policy Committee, Labor and Industry Finance and Policy Committee, Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee and Commerce Finance and Policy Committee.
The Senate committees that have signed off so far are the Human Services Committee, Health and Human Services Committee, Environment, Climate, and Legacy Committee, Agriculture, Broadband, and Rural Development Committee, Jobs and Economic Development Committee, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee and Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.
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Lawmakers and the governor have expressed optimism about the prospects of legalization this session, especially with Democrats newly in control of both chambers, whereas last session they only had a House majority.
Following their election win in November, Democrats internally agreed to discuss the issue imminently.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) said recently that she expects cannabis reform to be included in the governor’s forthcoming budget request, though she reiterated that the reform “will take a long time” to move through the legislature.
While marijuana reform was excluded from a list of legislative priorities that Democrats unveiled last month, Hortman said that the issue is “a priority,” albeit a “very big, complicated.”
The governor included funding for implementing legalization in his last executive budget request, but lawmakers were unable to enact the policy change. He and Hortman have differing opinions about how quickly the issue can advance this session, however, with Walz recently saying it would be done “by May” and the speaker indicating it could take until next year.
Winkler told Marijuana Moment that he agrees with the governor, saying “it is likely that [passing legalization] will be done by May.”
“The reason is that the legislature adjourns until next year at the end of May, and so if they don’t do it in that timeline, it’ll take another full year—and I don’t think anything will be improved or bettered by waiting,” he said. “So it’s in everyone’s interest to get this bill passed.”
Two polls released in September found that the majority of Minnesota residents support adult-use marijuana legalization—and one survey showed that even more Minnesotans approve of the state’s move to legalize THC-infused edibles that was enacted earlier this year.
A survey conducted by officials with the House at the annual State Fair that was released in September also found majority support for legalization. That legislature-run poll found that 61 percent of Minnesotans back legalizing cannabis for adult use.
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