Minnesota Senate green lights speedier timeline for launching licensed cannabis businesses, growing

Published 8:17 am Sunday, May 5, 2024

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By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

Cannabis cultivators would be able to begin growing commercial crops starting later this year under a bill that passed through the Minnesota Senate on Friday 34-32.

The bill would speed up the process for getting cannabis dispensaries lined up by giving them a route to pre-approval of operating licenses. Lawmakers voted to allow the office to start issuing license pre-approvals this summer. Supporters say that would allow them to secure funding, rent real estate and take other steps to get up and running.

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In less than a year, the state expects a broader array of cannabis stores to be up and running. Before that can happen, growers and distributors will have to get licensed through the state.

“This newly regulated, legalized and regulated industry is in its infancy, and we’re here to continue the work we started last year,” Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, said. “Like any new industry, it will not be fully grown on day one. This bill works to ensure a successful market launch and support the industry and Minnesotans involved in this industry as it grows and develops.”

The proposal would also put the Office of Cannabis Management in charge of enforcement for hemp-derived edible products and medical marijuana. Those responsibilities currently fall to the Department of Health. Many of the recommendations in the bill came from the new agency overseeing the marijuana market.

The policy changes come less than a year after lawmakers voted to permit adults 21 and up to possess and use small amounts of cannabis and to grow up to eight plants at home.

The state intends to elevate social equity applicants from minority communities or those that were disproportionately affected by the enforcement of criminal laws around marijuana. Those Minnesotans could get the okay later this year to begin cultivating cannabis ahead of opening dispensaries next year.

Early cultivators would be subject to Minnesota’s medical cannabis growing standards until the Office of Cannabis Management establishes more permanent rules next year.

Republicans raised concerns about setting up temporary guidelines that might vary from permanent ones and allowing people to begin commercial growing before they have a state license.

“I understand that there are folks that want to have the cannabis industry open and running today,” Sen. Jordan Rasmusson, R-Fergus Falls, said. “But I think for the health and safety of Minnesotans for public safety, for just regulatory integrity, and an open and transparent process that would allow Minnesotans to engage on rulemaking, it’s really important that we don’t do a an end-around.”

Others suggested that rushing the set-up process could spur unintended consequences. They tried to amend the bill to add a misdemeanor offense for minors in possession of marijuana.

“How can we say it’s wrong and a petty misdemeanor or maybe even a misdemeanor for repeat repeat offenses for a child to be drinking a beer, but it’s okay for them to be walking down the street with a bag of marijuana or smoking a joint?” Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said. “Where’s the consistency in that?”

Port and other DFL lawmakers argued that enforcement of marijuana laws was previously disproportionate and could be used more against young people of color.

“We should not pretend that what we did for decades wasn’t harmful for people and to undo the harm we don’t need to do something different,” Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, said.

While edible hemp-derived THC products — like edibles and seltzers — have been allowed since 2022, the recreational cannabis law didn’t immediately green light the creation of dispensaries for full-fledged marijuana.

A pair of Native American tribes have opened dispensaries on their reservations under sovereign authority — and others have plans to open dispensaries of their own soon — but other prospective dispensary owners and commercial cultivators have had to wait for the state’s go-ahead to get started.

And they’ve pressed lawmakers to let them start the process of getting pre-approved for licenses early so they can begin growing, obtaining capital and buying property for their businesses.

The bill moves next to a conference committee where lawmakers from the House and Senate will iron out differences between the bills. From there, it would have to get the okay from both chambers before making its way to the governor’s desk.

Gov. Tim Walz has said he is keeping tabs on the legislation and understands concerns about allowing producers to start growing later this year. But he voiced concerns about ensuring quality standards for cannabis crops.

“We certainly hear people on this. I think there’s some potential there,” Walz told reporters earlier this week. “We’re trying the best we can, but we’re not going to cut corners.”