By Kyle Jaeger
A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota was approved by a House committee on Wednesday—the first of up to a dozen panels that are expected to take up the reform legislation in the weeks to come in advance of a floor vote.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) and other lawmakers filed the measure earlier this month. It would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to eight plants, four of which could be mature.
The House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee passed the bill in a 10-7 vote.
A second hearing on the proposal is scheduled in the Labor, Industry, Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee for February 23.
Winkler’s bill as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. The majority leader, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the proposal, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
On-site consumption and cannabis delivery services would also be permitted. And unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas.
Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at 10 percent. Part of that revenue would fund a grant program designed to promote economic development and community stability.
The bill calls for the establishment of a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, which would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. It was amended in committee on Tuesday to add members to that board who have a social justice background.
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 committee-approved amendment from Winkler would also allow municipal and county governments to own cannabis stores. It would additionally clarify that enacting marijuana legalization wouldn’t affect the Clean Indoor Air Act, among other changes to the bill.
A separate amendment, from Rep. Tim O’Driscoll (R), was also adopted, via a voice vote. It would prevent marijuana businesses from being located within 1,000 feet of a school, day care, nursing home, union headquarters, house of worship or the Capitol.
While Winkler said that the issue of cannabis dispensary location is better handled by local governments rather than a statewide blanket policy, he agreed to let the amendment be attached to the bill for now while committing to refine its language in a subsequent committee.
Prior to the vote to approve the bill, other panel members asked questions about potential conflicts with federal law, employment-related issues, marijuana-impaired driving and other issues.
Winkler said in his opening remarks at the start of the hearing that the reason for the legislation is that “we have cannabis laws in place today that are doing more harm than good.”
Legalization “is coming,” he said. “It is time for us to get it right and that’s what this bill represents. It’s not perfect, but I think through the work of this committee —through the work with advocacy organizations and your input—we can make it better and move it towards final passage.”
A local council of the trade union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association submitted testimony in favor of the legalization bill prior to the hearing. Opposing testimony came from organizations including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Minnesota Trucking Association.
A day before Wednesday’s committee vote, Winkler was joined by U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) in a webinar where the trio discussed the need to enact a cannabis policy change.
“We do intend to bring it all the way through, and we think it will set a standard for equity, for righting past wrongs and addressing the racist war on crime to create a Minnesota-based business for small business, microbusiness and craft-type businesses,” the majority leader told the congresswomen. “We will allow Minnesotans to have the basic freedom to safely use a product that they will enjoy both for its health benefits and for its personal use.”
“It’s time to end this past approach—it is long past time to make cannabis legal in Minnesota and to begin dismantling the structural criminal justice attack on black and brown Minnesotans, black and brown America,” he said. “We can do it with this bill and we’re going to push hard.”
The majority leader said that while legalization will not “solve all criminal justice disparities in Minnesota,” there’s “no question that cannabis arrests have led to a lot of other charges,” including those based on police searches that were conducted because an officer smelled a cannabis odor. He cited a high profile case of a man killed by a Minnesota officer who attempted to justify the encounter over the smell of marijuana.
“The terrible situation—the killing of Philando Castile, which in part was based on cannabis smell in the car, and that was part of the outrageous justification from the officer for why he was not in the right frame of mind with respect to that stop,” he said. “[Criminalization] can have devastating consequences.”
Gov. Tim Walz (D) is also in favor of ending marijuana prohibition, and last month he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
Walz did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen.
The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
While Republicans remain in control of the Senate, Winkler said on Tuesday that he thinks they “will pick up quite a bit of Republican support” for the legalization bill. And at the very least, he’s hopeful that the chamber will at least hold a vote on the proposal.
“Our strategy is based on demonstrating strong support from Democrats but also showing that Republicans want to have a chance to vote on the bill and want to have an opportunity to see if we can get it passed,” he said. “We have never pass it in the House before. We’re going to do that and we’re going to work on a strategy of putting pressure on Senate leadership to at least bring the bill up and see if we can get the votes to pass it.”