Minnesotans over 21 would could buy and use marijuana legally by 2022 as part of a proposal that would give the state significant power and oversight of a recreational cannabis program.
The state would regulate all aspects of the local marijuana industry, enforcing health and safety regulations and controlling everything from testing to labeling requirements.
The measure is Minnesota’s most expansive recreational marijuana proposal to date, requiring a study of the health effects and imposing significant restrictions on marketing to teens.
Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, the chief sponsor in the Senate, said the goal is to closely regulate the product and then minimize health consequences.
“What we tried to do is have all the buckets or areas that this issue touches on ... from schools, public health, public safety, to health care, everything, and try to have a comprehensive, holistic approach of what this would look like and not take it piecemeal,” Franzen said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, dismissed the idea, particularly the notion that the state could effectively mitigate health and safety consequences. He cited critics’ concerns over substance abuse increases, as well as effects on health and public safety.
“Legalizing recreational marijuana is a controversial issue to say the least and not something I would consider a priority issue,” Gazelka said in a statement. “Considering that it’s linked to mental health problems, driving accidents, and impaired teen brain development, I don’t think it has a chance to pass the Senate this year.”
Recreational marijuana legalization is gaining traction nationwide, as support builds among some policymakers and voters. Ten states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana, while dozens more, including Minnesota, allow medicinal use.
Supporters say given those trends, the state must be proactive about how to thoughtfully allow and regulate recreational use.
“The issue of cannabis legalization is one that’s moving incredibly fast around the country. At a certain point it will become inevitable in Minnesota, ” Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, said at a news conference. “We have two options in front of us. One is to get in front of this issue and put strong public health protections in place, and the other is to wait for it to come to us.”
Democratic Gov. Tim Walz expressed support for legalizing cannabis during the 2018 campaign. But the proposals face tough prospects this session, especially in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The push may also face significant opposition in the DFL-controlled House. Leaders there have said that changes to medical marijuana and criminal justice policies for nonviolent drug-related offenses are higher priorities than full legalization this session. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said recently that she sees “no rush” on acting on the issue.
Even with policy shifts in the states, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. In Minnesota, the proposal’s fate could also be complicated by the opioid crisis. Legislators must balance the push to expand marijuana usage as they are drafting proposals to curb opioid addiction and overdoses.
“It’s going to be a long discussion,” Freiberg said. “It will not be an easy one, but we are all up for the challenge.”
The proposals rolled out Monday focus on establishing a regulatory framework for legalizing cannabis for Minnesotans 21 years and older. The bill would allow for commercial sales by 2022 and small-scale personal possession, such as growing plants at home, starting in 2020. While legalization has resulted in revenue boosts in other states, sponsors said specifics about taxing sales will come later in the process.
The proposal outlines action on a range of issues related to legalization, such as setting limits, testing for use while driving and studying potential mental health effects. It also calls for public health warnings about addiction risks and additional funding for law enforcement training. Those convicted of nonviolent offenses related to cannabis possession could have the crimes expunged from their criminal records.
Despite opposition from GOP leadership, the plan does have bipartisan backing in the Senate, where Republicans hold a razor-thin majority.
Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, said he signed on after considering available research, his observations as a doctor and feedback from constituents. He estimated that 90 percent of attendees at a weekend town hall in his district raised their hands when he asked if they want lawmakers to address the issue.
As a physician, Jensen has opted to decline to prescribe medicinal marijuana and would not tell a patient the substance is “good for you.” But he believes cannabis can help certain conditions and offer an alternative to opioids and other more addictive drugs prescribed for anxiety and pain management. And he worries that without proactive steps to regulate and research the substance now, the potential risks will grow.
“We cannot afford to get behind [on] this,” he said. “We have to be in front of this, we have to have the discussion.”
In the House, sponsors dubbed the measure House File 420, a reference to the number that is slang for consuming marijuana.