A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota cleared its fifth Senate committee on Thursday—and it received an impassioned endorsement in testimony from the state’s celebrity former governor, Jesse Ventura.
The Senate Environment, Climate, and Legacy approved the legislation from Sen. Lindsey Port (D) in a 5-4 vote on Thursday. The measure is expected to go through 18 committees before potentially reaching the floor.
“Prohibition of cannabis is a failed system that has not achieved the desired goals and has incredible costs for communities, especially for communities of color,” Port said in opening remarks.
“We have an opportunity to start the process to undo some of the harm that has been done and to create a system of regulation that works for Minnesota consumers and businesses, while ensuring an opportunity in this new market for communities that have been most affected by prohibition,” she said. “Our main goals with this bill are to legalize, regulate and expunge, and we’re working to ensure that this legislation does just that.”
Ventura, a former wrestling star and longtime cannabis reform advocate, was among those who testified in favor of the reform. He was granted an extended window to speak as he described how, in the past, he broke the law to obtain marijuana that treated his late wife’s severe, late-life seizures when other medications failed.
“I had to break the law. My friends had to send it to me in Minnesota,” he said. “Well, I kind of took the attitude of ‘Dirty Harry’ Callahan when I said, ‘Well then, the law is wrong,’ because I’m putting my wife ahead of Minnesota law.”
That was before the state legalized medical cannabis, he said. But even when he could access marijuana from dispensaries, it was cost prohibitive, and Ventura argued that passing adult-use legalization would create competition that would lower costs for recreational consumers and patients alike.
The former governor also emphasized that, whatever age restriction that lawmakers decide to impose on adults, the government needs to “get consistent.” He reflected on being under 21 serving in the military in combat tours in Vietnam and coming home where he was too young to buy a beer.
“So pick your age. Are you an adult at 18? It seems to me you should be if you are able to go kill for your country or be killed for your country,” Ventura, who spoke with the current governor about prioritizing legalization following last year’s election, said. “If you’re old enough to do that, you ought to be old enough to smoke a joint.”
Other people testifying before the committee gave more targeted perspectives related to the environmental aspects of the reform proposal under the panel’s jurisdiction, such as considerations for water usage and how to minimize the release of greenhouse gases in production.
On the House side, the companion bill that’s being carried by Rep. Zack Stephenson (D) cleared its seventh committee on Wednesday, meaning it’s about halfway through the committee process.
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With majorities in both the House and Senate and control over the governorship this session, Democratic-Farmer-Labor party officials are confident that legalization will be enacted in short order following the extensive committee consideration.
The governor recently released his biennial budget request, which included proposed funding to implement marijuana legalization and expungements, and made projections about the millions of dollars in cannabis tax revenue that his office estimates the state will earn after the reform is enacted.
Gov. Tim Walz (D) discussed his proposal in a recent interview, explaining why he’s calling for a tax rate on marijuana sales that’s nearly double that of the bill that’s advancing in the legislature.
That legislation is an iteration of the 2021 House-passed bill from former Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), who now serves as campaign chairman of the advocacy coalition MN is Ready. That group announced last month that it would be lobbying for the measure while leading a grassroots effort to build support for reform.
The governor has called on supporters to join lawmakers and the administration in their push legalize marijuana this session, and he circulated an email blast last month that encourages people to sign a petition backing the reform.
Much of the revised bills that are advancing through committee are consistent with Winkler’s legislation, though there are a few key changes, in addition to the newly adopted amendments. For example, it adds a new license category for businesses that sell “lower-potency edible products” under Minnesota’s unique THC law that the governor signed last year.
Senator @Lindsey_Port's bill to legalize adult-use cannabis has successfully passed the Committee on Environment, Climate, and Legacy and is headed to the Transportation Committee! Let's keep it moving and #LegalizeIt!
— Minnesota Senate DFL (@SenateDFL) February 9, 2023
There would also be reduced regulatory requirements for those licensees, and they’d be able to permit on-site consumption if they have a liquor license, which is meant to ensure that shops currently selling low-THC beverages and edibles don’t face disruption.
At Thursday’s Senate committee hearing, members rejected an amendment to require water used in cannabis cultivation to go through a reverse osmosis filtration system before it can be discharged, as well as another proposed revision to require cannabis cultivation facilities to complete environmental assessment worksheets.
The next stop for the legislation on the Senate side is the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, which is expected to take up the proposal on Monday.
Adults 21 and older could purchase up to two ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to eight plants, four of which could be mature.
They could possess up to two ounces in a public place and up to five pounds in a private dwelling.
Gifting up to two ounces of marijuana without remuneration between adults would be permitted.
It would promote social equity, in part by ensuring that diverse licensing by scoring equity applicants higher.
Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension would be responsible for identifying people who are eligible for relief and process the expungements.
In addition to creating a system of licensed cannabis businesses, municipalities and counties could own and operate government dispensaries.
On-site consumption permits could be approved for events, and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill.
Unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas, though they could set “reasonable” regulations on the time of operation and location of those businesses.
Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at eight percent. Part of that revenue would fund substance misuse treatment programs, as well as grants to support farmers.
A new Office of Cannabis Management would be established, and it would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. There would be a designated Division of Social Equity.
People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.
The legislation as revised fixes an issue in current statute that prohibits liquor stores from selling THC products.
It also contains language banning synthetic cannabinoids, which is consistent with Board of Pharmacy rules put into place last year.
The Senate committees that have signed off so far are the Agriculture, Broadband, and Rural Development Committee, Jobs and Economic Development Committee, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee and Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.
The House panels that have passed the legislation in recent weeks are the Workforce Development Finance and Policy Committee, Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee, State and Local Government Finance and Policy Committee, Labor and Industry Finance and Policy Committee, Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee and Commerce Finance and Policy Committee.
Lawmakers and the governor have expressed optimism about the prospects of legalization this session, especially with Democrats newly in control of both chambers, whereas last session they only had a House majority.
Following their election win in November, Democrats internally agreed to discuss the issue imminently.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) said recently that she expects cannabis reform to be included in the governor’s forthcoming budget request, though she reiterated that the reform “will take a long time” to move through the legislature.
While marijuana reform was excluded from a list of legislative priorities that Democrats unveiled last month, Hortman said that the issue is “a priority,” albeit a “very big, complicated.”
The governor included funding for implementing legalization in his last executive budget request, but lawmakers were unable to enact the policy change. He and Hortman have differing opinions about how quickly the issue can advance this session, however, with Walz recently saying it would be done “by May” and the speaker indicating it could take until next year.
Winkler told Marijuana Moment last month that he agrees with the governor, saying “it is likely that [passing legalization] will be done by May.”
“The reason is that the legislature adjourns until next year at the end of May, and so if they don’t do it in that timeline, it’ll take another full year—and I don’t think anything will be improved or bettered by waiting,” he said. “So it’s in everyone’s interest to get this bill passed.”
Two polls released in September found that the majority of Minnesota residents support adult-use marijuana legalization—and one survey showed that even more Minnesotans approve of the state’s move to legalize THC-infused edibles that was enacted earlier this year.
A survey conducted by officials with the House at the annual State Fair that was released in September also found majority support for legalization. That legislature-run poll found that 61 percent of Minnesotans back legalizing cannabis for adult use.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.