The battle to legalize recreational marijuana gained new life at the Minnesota Capitol on Wednesday after a measure to permit adult cannabis use survived its first committee test.
Supporters of the measure described it as an important racial and criminal justice measure that could also bring millions of dollars in new revenue to a state that's been hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This is an opportunity in the age of COVID, and political and racial disruption and economic uncertainty to open the doors to grow our local economy and bridge the outrageous racial disparities in our state," said Anthony Newby, a north Minneapolis resident who works for a CBD company.
The legislation passed out of the House Commerce Committee on a 10-7 party-line vote, with all Democrats supporting the measure and all Republicans opposed. It is the first time in state history that recreational marijuana passed a committee in either chamber of the Legislature, which supporters say signals the sea change on marijuana happening across the country is coming to Minnesota.
But the legislation faces strong opposition in the Senate, where Republicans in control remain opposed to taking up the measure this year. Opponents to legalization testified that they feared unsafe highways, increased substance-abuse problems and confusion over how to handle people who are high in the workplace.
"It's a bad bill," said Ryan Hamilton with the Minnesota Catholic Conference. "It's a bad bill for adolescents, it's bad for our brothers and sisters with substance-abuse problems, it's bad for people who use our highways, and it's bad for the common good."
Minnesota allows cannabis use only for certain health conditions under one of the most strict medical marijuana programs in the nation. The proposal, sponsored by House DFL Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, would legalize recreational marijuana for people 21 and older and create a regulatory structure for testing, labeling of products and allow some limited homegrown operations.
The bill would also automatically expunge misdemeanor-level cannabis convictions from people's records. Higher-level convictions would go before an expungement review board.
"It's coming. It's time to get it right," said Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. "We have an opportunity to go from an illegal, criminal-justice approach that hurts a lot of people and move to a system where we can actually address the real concerns, create real opportunity and right some past wrongs."
The legislation comes after 15 town hall meetings across the state and more than 18 months of input from criminal justice groups, the business community and others.
Fifteen states have voted to legalize recreational marijuana, including South Dakota, where the program's fate is pending a legal challenge and appeal to the state's Supreme Court. Supporters in North Dakota are trying to get it on the 2022 ballot.
The bill is gaining momentum in the DFL-led House and Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign an adult-use cannabis bill as a criminal justice and revenue-boosting measure. But advocates were disheartened when Republicans held onto their control of the Senate chamber by a single vote after the last election.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he remains concerned about the unintended consequences of legalization and wants to focus this session on recovering from the pandemic.
Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, said she's worried the legislation as it's written doesn't do enough to ease concerns from business owners about how to handle the complexities of marijuana use in the workplace.
But supporters vastly outnumbered opponents at the hearing. They testified that the proposal is a start to undoing decades of damage done to minority communities during the "war on drugs." Black Minnesotans are at least five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Minnesotans, despite similar usage rates, according to the ACLU of Minnesota.
Marcus Harcus, a north Minneapolis resident and longtime recreational marijuana activist, said that as a Black man "the most dangerous thing about cannabis is getting caught with it."
Jessica Hauser, whose son was the first patient registered with Minnesota's medical marijuana program, said that as the boy gets older the amount of cannabis they'll need to treat his daily seizures will become more than they can afford under the state's current medical program.
They don't want to have to turn to the "black market" for marijuana, she said, as other parents have done.
"No Minnesotan should have to choose between the cost of their medicine or being a criminal," she said. "It's long past time to improve access to safe, affordable cannabis."