When I started working on a bill in 2019 to legalize cannabis for adult use, Minnesota was not ready for that idea to become law. Proposals were confused and contradictory. Neither the House nor the Senate DFL had the votes necessary to pass it, and Republicans in the Senate were actively blocking cannabis legalization for their political benefit. Most important, Minnesotans had not been heard on what goals lawmakers should pursue in creating a new cannabis marketplace.
So much has changed in three years. Members of the state House spent two years traveling throughout Minnesota to talk directly with voters from Hibbing and Bemidji, St. Cloud and Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Faribault and Rochester, and Eden Prairie and Woodbury. Thousands of Minnesotans took the opportunity to be heard on cannabis.
We also engaged cannabis advocates and law enforcement. We studied the success and failures of other states. We spent months working through policy tradeoffs and refining the goals of the legislation. State agencies, local governments, chemical dependency and mental health advocates, and even cannabis opponents provided their input. Finally, legislators and our staff developed a set of policy goals in a range of issue areas, and we worked together to draft a comprehensive and sensible bill.
After all of that engagement, we started the formal legislative process. I introduced House File 600 in 2020, right before the pandemic struck. In 2021, I moved the bill through 19 committees and passed it in the House with a bipartisan mix of legislators. The passage of HF 600 was the culmination of hundreds of hours of direct engagement, and the bill reflected the views and values of tens of thousands of Minnesotans.
In 2023, action by the Legislature to legalize cannabis for adult use is responsible and necessary. Lawmakers should use HF 600 as a starting point, and should incorporate continued lessons from other states and Minnesota's new low-dose THC edibles market. The next Legislature should continue to improve the bill, and the public should continue to weigh in as well.
After all the work is done, however, the following six core principles must remain at the heart of cannabis legalization.
• Support Minnesota businesses. We have heard overwhelmingly that Minnesotans want a home-grown cannabis industry that benefits our communities, craft businesses and local workers. We do not want to create a market that is easy for big companies to take over.
• Invest in racial equity. In every community meeting we held, Minnesotans brought up the racial disparities caused by cannabis prohibition. We want those communities harmed by our criminal prohibition to participate in the success of the legal marketplace. We want businesses started and run by people of color to have a chance to thrive in this market.
• Establish statewide standards. Minnesota needs a single cannabis marketplace, not a patchwork of regulations from local governments that will guarantee that an illegal market for cannabis continues.
• Eliminate barriers to a legal market. To create a successful, legal market, we need regulations to be reasonable and not arbitrarily burdensome, and we should not set taxes at such a level that a new, legal industry cannot thrive.
• Expunge cannabis records. Minnesota cannot ignore the long-term harm caused by criminal convictions for cannabis, and we need to expunge the records of those who have been convicted of cannabis offenses. We need to help individuals and communities heal and not just forget about the injustices of the past.
• Address harmful effects. We also need to remember that cannabis does create some risks, and taxes paid by cannabis users should be dedicated to reality-based drug education, impaired-driving detection, chemical dependency treatment and mental health recovery. Cannabis should pay for itself and support recovery for the many people harmed by more dangerous drugs.
Minnesota is on the verge of passing the best cannabis legislation in the nation because it reflects the best of our state. Your state senators and state representatives need to continue hearing from you. The laws will not be perfect, and we will continue to learn and improve. But there is no reason to delay and every reason to act now — Minnesota is ready for adult-use cannabis.
Ryan Winkler has been majority leader in the Minnesota House since 2019. He declined to seek re-election to his House seat this year, instead launching an unsuccessful bid for Hennepin County Attorney.