The Minnesota House voted on Thursday to legalize marijuana for adults, the furthest the proposal has ever traveled in the Legislature and a watershed moment on an issue that has long languished in St. Paul.
After more than five hours of debate, the House voted 72-61 in favor of legalization, with support from nearly all Democrats and six Republicans. DFL Gov. Tim Walz supports the measure, but it still faces long odds to become law this year, with just days left in the regular 2021 session and opposition from Republicans in control of the state Senate.
But supporters lauded the package as one that would bring in millions of dollars in new tax revenue to regulate the industry while beginning to address the toll marijuana policing has taken on communities of color.
"This bill is a long time coming," said DFL Majority Leader Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley, who shepherded the legislation through the House. "Minnesotans have decided it's time to legalize cannabis and right the wrongs of the criminal prohibition of marijuana that has failed Minnesotans and has failed Minnesota."
Under the bill, Minnesotans 21 and older can have up to 10 pounds of cannabis in their homes and up to 2 ounces in a public place. It sets up a legal marketplace to sell marijuana, establishes labeling and safety requirements and dedicates revenue generated to regulation, youth access prevention and substance abuse treatment programs.
At the center of the bill are racial equity provisions that supporters say will begin to address the disproportionate toll marijuana policing has taken on communities of color.
Black people are more than five times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Minnesota, despite comparable usage rates, according to a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union. The bill would automatically expunge low-level marijuana convictions and create a special board to review others.
"I know how hard change can be, I know how much easier it is for elected officials to stick to the status quo," said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul. "We can't keep relying on the status quo. Today the Minnesota House is taking one of the most significant steps toward racial equity."
But opponents of the proposal said they fear unsafe highways, increased substance-abuse problems and confusion over how to handle employees such as teachers, lawyers and contractors who are impaired in the workplace.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who lost his son to an opioid overdose, said people in treatment programs often cite marijuana as the drug that opened the door to other drug use.
"It starts with marijuana and it goes on to other things," he said. "This is not a joke, this is serious."
Republicans criticized Democrats in control of the House for taking up the bill before leaders strike a deal with the Senate on the state's next two-year budget.
"Our voters sent us here to pass a state budget and at this point Democrats have passed zero budget bills," Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said. "With just a few days left in session, we are wasting our time on this marijuana bill that has no chance of becoming law."
Right now, Minnesota allows marijuana only for certain medical conditions, and its program is one of the strictest in the nation, prohibiting enrollees from smoking the raw cannabis flower.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have already voted to legalize marijuana, including in neighboring South Dakota, where it received 54% of the vote in November. An April poll from Pew Research found 60% of Americans think marijuana should be legal for recreational and medical purposes.
Thursday's vote is the culmination of 15 community meetings across the state, consultation with 13 state agencies, multiple working groups and roughly 16 hours of debate in a dozen House committee hearings this session. Before this year, the legislation had a single hearing in the state Senate, where Republicans voted it down. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has said the issue is not a priority this session.
But a growing number of Democrats support legalization, including Walz, a dramatic shift from former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who stridently opposed recreational marijuana legalization.
Major disparities in marijuana policing also reinforced a push to pass the legislation in the DFL-led House, as Minnesota grapples with its own systemic racial disparities in the wake of George Floyd's killing in police custody.
Politically, Minnesota Democrats have motivation to take a public stand in favor of legalization. Candidates from two major political marijuana parties in the state siphoned votes from Democrats in a handful of critical legislative and congressional races in 2020, possibly handing Republicans control of the Senate.
Even if the issue goes nowhere this session, Winkler said the effort has pushed Senate Republicans to consider adding the raw flower to the state's medical program for adults, which would dramatically lower the costs of the program.
"We are putting this bill front and center and showing there is an appetite here at the Capitol," Winkler said. "It is also showing Republicans how much support there is in their own Republican base."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042