Marijuana bill within sight of up-or-down votes at Minnesota Capitol

Published 6:02 pm Tuesday, April 11, 2023

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By Brian Bakst, Minnesota Public Radio News

On Tuesdays, Sen. Lindsey Port clears hours on her schedule to take feedback on cannabis legalization, allowing anybody with a concern or suggestion to get face time with the lead Senate sponsor.

A few thick folders sit within Port’s reach in her office. They’re filled with emails, reports, proposed amendments and other advice she’s accumulated during the more than 100 appointments she’s had since January in what she describes as the biggest undertaking of her time in the Legislature.

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“I’ve met with everybody from students who want to make sure that there is peer-to-peer education on the dangers of marijuana to hemp farmers to criminal justice lawyers to concerned parents, people who don’t want cannabis legalized,” said Port, DFL-Burnsville. “Really, I have not said no to those meetings.”

As lawmakers return to the Capitol for the session’s remaining six weeks, the marijuana bill is nearing the end of a committee gauntlet. Votes on the House and Senate floor could happen yet this month, although differences in the bills before each body seem certain to push the plan into another round of negotiations.

“The Capitol has given this bill a full vetting,” said Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, whose now 291-page bill has been through 14 committees and has at least one to go. “And that’s I think one of the reasons why we’re poised to get the job done this year.”

Whether his prediction holds up will be known soon enough.

It would take at least 68 votes to pass the bill in the House and 34 in the Senate. Unified DFL support is unlikely and some crossover votes by Republicans are expected despite broader opposition in that party.

As the bill drives toward those pivotal votes, critics of the bill’s latest versions are stepping up their efforts. A coalition whose members range from the state trucking association to the Minnesota Catholic Conference to parents sounding alarm over addiction planned a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday.

Groups that worry about social equity applicants getting left out of new business opportunities around cannabis are making waves as well. They joined a small group of hemp farmers and retailers that sell hemp-derived products at a news conference Tuesday, where they said current versions of the bill would make their existence untenable due to new taxes, licensing requirements and farm regulations.

“By no means do we not want to see the bill passed,” said Michael Ford, owner of Cannafitiva. “But we would like to see the legislators take our issues seriously.”

Some facets of the legislation appear set: People at least 21 years old could buy and use marijuana in various forms. They could also grow their own within limits. The government would license businesses involved in commercial cultivation, distribution and sales. And people with prior low-level marijuana convictions would find an easier path to expungement.

But there are moving parts: A final tax structure, possession limits, the process for roadway impairment tests, the level of local regulation and treatment of already legal products derived from cannabis cousin hemp.

Ted Galaty is a southern Minnesota hemp grower who runs hemp-based amusement attractions, including a maze, and sells cannabinoid products containing the chemical THC. He has testified frequently and most recently told lawmakers to separate hemp regulation from the marijuana push.

“You’re riding my back so that you can have the legal recreational marijuana. That’s the facts, okay?” Galaty said. “And I don’t want to see that happen to me or any of these other farmers or any of these other processors or retailers because we’re going to lose our butts.”

Jeff Brinkman, a hemp farmer who operates Superior Cannabis Co. in Austin, said he fears he’d have to revamp his business to come into compliance with the bill’s requirements.

“It should be passed, but it should be changed,” he said. “We’ve gone through 18 versions of this bill. And there’s still major changes, major structural changes that it needs.”

Bill sponsors say they’re open to fixes suitable to the hemp industry, but finding an approach that satisfies all interests has proven tricky.

Then there’s the political viability. Two years ago when a marijuana legalization bill passed in the House, six Republicans backed the measure and four DFLers opposed it.

Of the breakaway Republican legislators, two remain. Rep. Nolan West said back home in Blaine he received a mix of praise and “sheepish” opposition for his vote. He said he’s inclined to vote for legalization again.

“Looking at other states that have legalized it, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows as some people would like you to believe. But it also isn’t the apocalypse some other people would like you to believe,” West said. “I would like to see Minnesota have an economically competitive bill so that it eliminates the black market.”

West said Stephenson had to make changes to earn his vote.

“The original bill was hot garbage,” West said.

West succeeded in getting the sponsor to lower at-home possession limits from 5 pounds to 1.5 pounds. He still wants more drug-recognition expert funding and changes to the cannabis business regulatory structure.

Stephenson said he has been intentional about working with Republicans who have brought good-faith changes to him.

“This is not an issue that cuts neatly across partisan lines with the general public, and it shouldn’t here at the Capitol either,” he said.

Of the prior DFL opponents, only Rep. Gene Pelowski remains.

“I’ve got Winona State, four blocks from me,” Pelowski said. “So I get contacted, let’s just say, on a regular basis by students.”

Pelowski said he sees more potential problems than societal benefits, so he’s not budging in his opposition.

“They desperately want this, and I’m not desperate against it,” he said. “But I don’t see the desperation here and needing this legalized.”

More intrigue surrounds a vote in the Senate, where most members have never been put on record. DFLers have a bare 34-33 majority there.

Sen. John Hoffman is one of those who hasn’t fully committed, saying his vote comes down to dollars available for addiction response.

“So what are we doing for prevention? What are we doing about treatment, and then the third thing that needs to be in there is recovery, right?” said Hoffman, DFL-Champlin. “You’ve got to have a good robust recovery system in place.”

After expressing hesitance during a committee hearing, Hoffman said he became a target on social media and there was some material crossed the line.

“Where actually they said, yeah, they see Hoffman around Cub Foods. ‘How do you get to him?’ And one person said, ‘Send him a horse head,’” Hoffman said, alluding to a famous movie intimidation scene from the Godfather. “Well, that’s not a good conversation starter.”

As she meets with colleagues and others, Port says she’s confident the votes are there.

“The vast majority of people that come through my door know that this is likely to happen even if they don’t love the idea,” she said. “They want to make sure to the best of our ability that it’s the best bill that we can do for Minnesotans.”