Minnesota House OKs legal cannabis; Senate vote scheduled Friday

“I do expect this is the year we get the job done,” said bill sponsor Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids.

Cannabis plant
A grower inspects a cannabis plant at a craft grow operation outside of Nelson, British Columbia, on Nov. 8, 2018.
Ben Nelms / Bloomberg

ST. PAUL — Members of the Minnesota House on Tuesday, April 25, approved a bill to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults.

Legalization has passed in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-controlled House before, but there’s a key difference this year: DFL lawmakers took control last November of the Senate, where a vote is now also scheduled for Friday.

When Republicans controlled the Senate last year, pot bills didn’t get committee hearings. Now that’s no longer an obstacle, and DFL Gov. Tim Walz said he supports legalization and would sign a bill into law.

“I do expect this is the year we get the job done,” said bill sponsor Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids.

Stephenson and other legalization advocates say pot prohibition has done more harm than good. They hope the more than 300-page bill will help the state right past wrongs — including drug law enforcement's disproportionate effects on ethnic minorities.


Members started debating the bill late Monday and tabled the discussion around midnight. They resumed Tuesday afternoon before passing the bill on a 71-59 vote.

Reps. Nolan West, R-Blaine, and Shane Hudella, R-Hastings, joined DFLers in support of the bill. Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, joined Republicans in opposition.

What's in the bill?

The House bill would allow marijuana possession for people 21 and older, expunge marijuana conviction records and create a new regulatory scheme for the substance.

Eligible adults could possess 2 ounces or less of cannabis in a public place, and 1.5 pounds or less in a residence. Individuals would be able to possess edibles with a total of 800 milligrams or less of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis.

Sales of cannabis products would carry an 8% state tax. Stephenson and House Taxes Chair Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, say they don’t see legalization as a major revenue generator for the state, and the tax is there to cover the cost of regulation and oversight.

Legalization would create new licenses for cultivators, retailers, wholesalers and other parts of the cannabis business. An office of cannabis management created by the bill would regulate the production and sale of cannabis products in the state as well as the state medical cannabis program.

The House pot bill would provide $73 million for new regulations and other legalization-related programs.

THC-containing edibles made legal in Minnesota last July would also fall under new regulations. Sellers of the low-dosage edibles currently legal in Minnesota would need to apply for a license.


Local governments would not be able to prohibit cannabis, though they would be allowed to create “reasonable restrictions” on the times and places cannabis businesses can operate. Those reasonable restrictions include bans on a business operating within 1,000 feet of a school or day care.

The legalization bill also would automatically expunge petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor marijuana convictions from records. A Cannabis Expungement Board would review felony cases and determine whether a record should be cleared or if the person should be resentenced.

Republican concerns

Despite the Senate GOP not taking up a bill in the past, some Republicans support legalization. Ahead of the House floor vote Monday, West, the representative from Blaine, said he planned to vote in favor of the bill — despite his concerns about some of its provisions.

West took aim at the legalization bill for what he called the inclusion of “far-left ideology,” including proposed selection criteria for granting marijuana distribution licenses based on “social equity scores.” DFL lawmakers said they proposed that system as a way to distribute the benefits of the new industry in communities where drug laws did the most harm.

West also said he was concerned that the bill didn’t give local communities enough control over licensing, and that they’d have to go to state authorities with any concerns. Municipalities can revoke alcohol licenses, but wouldn’t be able to do the same with marijuana sellers, he said.

But West commended Stephenson for working to address his concerns in the bill. Those changes included reducing the home possession amount from 5 pounds to 1.5 pounds, and more than $10 million to address concerns about high drivers by training officers to recognize signs of marijuana intoxication.

Opponents of legalization have raised concerns about marijuana’s impact on younger people’s mental health, and have proposed raising the minimum age to possess and use the substance to 25. Republicans introduced nearly 20 amendments to the bill, including one to raise the legal age, but most failed.

The House adopted some Republican amendments, including a prohibition on school bus drivers from having cannabis in their system and an amendment banning the head of the cannabis management office from becoming a lobbyist after leaving the position.


Another Republican amendment removed a requirement for two business staff to be in a vehicle transporting hemp products, something businesses raised concerns about.

What’s next?

If a legalization bill also passes in the Senate on Friday, how close does that put legal pot to being a reality in Minnesota? It would be further than it's ever gotten in the Legislature, but there will still be more work before the bill can get to the governor’s desk.

Because of differences between the Senate and House bills, members from both bodies will have to meet in a conference committee to bring their bills into alignment. Already, the Senate version has a 10% tax on marijuana sales — slightly higher than the 8% backed by the House.

Rep. Stephenson said he has a good working relationship with Senate legalization sponsor Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, and he expects a smooth process.

Only after lawmakers work out those differences will legalization get its final vote and go to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

Lawmakers have to finish their business by May 22.

This story was last updated at 3:10 p.m. April 25 to add the names of lawmakers who voted in opposition. It was originally posted at 5:37 p.m. April 24.

Follow Alex Derosier on Twitter @xanderosier or email .

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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