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THC edibles are legal in Minnesota, but recreational pot isn't. How does that work?

Some have called the quasi-legalization a distinctly Minnesota version of recreational pot, dubbing it “3.2 cannabis.”

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A customer shows the products she bought from Nothing But Hemp in St. Paul. Some of the products contain THC, which became legal under 5 milligrams per serving in Minnesota on Friday, July 1, 2022.
Grace Birnstengel | MPR News
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ST. PAUL — Food and beverages containing THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis that gets users high, are now legal in Minnesota under a new law regulating hemp.

The law that went into effect July 1 took many Minnesotans by surprise , including some of the legislators who voted in its favor. But what exactly does it mean?

While anyone 21 or older can buy products that will get them “high” in Minnesota, it’s far from the legalization of recreational marijuana, which remains a long shot from gaining ground in the Minnesota Legislature. Technically, the bill Gov. Tim Walz signed into law provides new regulations for hemp products, including those containing psychoactive THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol.

Consumable products containing less than 5 milligrams of THC per serving and 50 milligrams per package can now be sold in Minnesota, providing they are derived from hemp, which must contain less than 0.3% THC under federal law. Any cannabis containing more than that level is considered marijuana, which is still illegal nationally.

It’s worth noting that a form of THC called delta-8 had already been legal in Minnesota under federal legislation passed in 2018. A key point of Minnesota’s new law, which regulates hemp products, also made the more potent delta-9 THC legal in the state so long as it is derived from hemp.

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Some have called the quasi-legalization a distinctly Minnesota version of recreational pot, dubbing it “3.2 cannabis” — historically Minnesota has had strict liquor laws and is the only remaining state requiring grocery stores and gas stations to sell only 3.2% alcohol beer.

But is it?

Steven Brown, CEO of Twin Cities cannabis business Nothing but Hemp, laughed when asked about the 3.2 comparison, but said the newly legal option in Minnesota does provide a milder base option for people using THC.

“I think it’s really funny, but I don’t think it’s 3.2 cannabis,” he said. “I kind of like to compare 5 milligrams to that first glass of wine that you have, you're not drunk, you're feeling good.”

In states where recreational marijuana is legal, health departments recommend first-time users of THC edibles take 5 milligrams or less as a way to gauge their reaction and tolerance. Brown said 5 milligrams is a good place for many people to start and added he and many others will even take a “micro-dose” of 2.5 milligrams for milder effects. Though, of course, there are the more experienced users who are happy to take 50 milligrams at a time, he said.

What's legal?

The THC in legally available products at Minnesota stores is chemically the same as THC available in illegal cannabis, a potentially confusing legal situation with roots in federal cannabis regulation.

There’s a distinction in federal law between legal hemp, which has a THC content of no more than 0.3%, and marijuana, which has a higher level. Hemp is grown for many purposes, including its fibers, but it also contains cannabinoids like THC, and CBD, or cannabidiol, a legal compound that does not cause a high that is already widely sold for its potential health benefits.

Cannabinoids like delta-8 and delta-9 THC and CBD can be extracted from hemp and made into consumable products. CBD is often made into oils or salves that can be rubbed on the skin and are touted for their ability to relieve pain and inflammation. When variants of THC are extracted from hemp, they can be concentrated in products at levels that can get users high.

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As far as the variants of THC go, delta-8 and delta-9 are almost chemically identical save for a difference in one bond in their molecular structure. But for humans that translates to a generally milder high from delta-8, and often fewer of the undesirable effects such as paranoia and anxiety that come from its more potent delta-9 cousin, Brown said.

Next steps?

Some holes remain following Minnesota's legalization of edible and drinkable THC products, namely enforcement and regulation.

Edible THC products might be legal under the new law, but the question of enforcement is not addressed. While the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy is tasked with regulating cannabis-containing products, enforcement will be up to cities and counties. Bill author Rep. Heather Edelson said one route is for cities to issue licenses as they currently do for tobacco sales.

Brown said he discussed exactly that at his business Thursday with Edelson and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, and he hopes business and local government can soon reach some type of regulatory framework.

“Right now it's 21-plus, but what does that really mean? And then you know, where can it really be sold … this is the big question,” Brown said. ”I don't want to say it's a free for all, but anybody who can get a hold of delta-9 products right now could sell it.”

Those are the immediate steps for the hemp business and others seeking to loosen cannabis regulations in the state, but there’s more work ahead, said Brown, who hopes Minnesota continues to refine its legal language on the various cannabinoids to help create a safer, streamlined product.

But that might only be one of the small steps in future years. Edelson said she looks forward to pushing for full legalization in future legislative sessions, something Walz has also said he supports. The question could ultimately come down to whether Democrats control the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature, as Republicans haven't signaled support for full legalization.

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