Marijuana law modifications are on tap before legal sales take root

Published 8:41 pm Monday, April 8, 2024

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State lawmakers are working through a number of modifications to the law Gov. Tim Walz signed last year legalizing recreational marijuana in the state.

There are dozens of mostly technical changes in the works at the Capitol. But there’s a hardy debate over the process for giving social equity applicants a leg up in getting cannabis business licenses. The bill gets its next House hearing on Tuesday.

The bill legalizing use of marijuana for Minnesotans 21 and older created a new state agency tasked with licensing businesses and overseeing a legal market. It gives higher priority to social equity applicants — those that were disproportionately held back by the prior criminalization of marijuana due to their race, community or other attributes.

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The law also mandated the expungement of misdemeanor marijuana offenses and that’s starting to happen.

Native American tribes currently have the ability to sell marijuana and some are well down that path. But other than in the sovereign nations, DFL lawmakers are trying not to change their tune on when people will be able to walk into dispensaries.

Charlene Briner, the interim Director for the Office of Cannabis Management, told a Senate hearing on Friday the office anticipates firming up the rules in early 2025. She said the office would try to start to issue contingent licenses for various parts of the growing and selling sooner. A preapproval window could begin in summer of this year.

“However, I want to be very explicit: those early licenses do not allow people who are awarded those licenses to touch the plant because we do have a health and safety and consumer safety concern,” Briner told the Senate State and Local Government and Veterans Committee. “So, we wouldn’t want people operating without rules enforced to make sure that we have those protections.”

Lawmakers are advancing bills to alter the point system to score applicants. It would introduce a random lottery that qualified applicants would be entered into to decide which get licenses if there is more demand than potential slots. That change could shield the process from litigation that’s occurred in other places and slowed the retail ramp-up.

DFL lawmakers remain optimistic, at least publicly, that the introduction of a retail market will go smoothly.

But Rep. Nolan West of Blaine — one of just five Republicans who voted for the bill last year — said DFL lawmakers’ “obsession about social equity” is taking up all the bandwidth.

“Because [the] black market is the whole problem with prohibition. It makes it more dangerous,” West said. “People are using it anyway, let’s get them in a safe and regulated market. [That] should be the number one priority but it’s not.”

He calls the timeline of an early 2025 launch to sales “laughable” because so much still needs to happen.

There are still new ideas coming up.

Last week, Sen. Susan Pha, DFL-Brooklyn Park, introduced legislation aimed at cannabis. Her bill would designate two seats on the Cannabis Advisory Council dedicated to people ages 18 to 25. She had a youth-led advocacy group with her who said young people need to be part of the conversation.

She said there are states that legalized cannabis years ago that are still adding improvements to their laws.

“I really see these as adding to improve the current policy that we passed last year, which was absolutely great,” Pha said. “But we know there are gaps and we know there’s things we still have to add to it.”

One part of the law passed last year that seems to be moving ahead quicker than expected is the state looks to expunge more than 60,000 misdemeanor records as early as next month. The judicial branch has until May 13 to object to any of those expungements.

A separate board is already at work examining more-serious, marijuana-related convictions that could be wiped from records after review.