County board approves interim moratorium on new cannabis businesses

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, July 3, 2024

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The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved an interim moratorium on new cannabis businesses within the county until Jan. 1.

The vote came as the board considers zoning and operation of cannabis businesses in the county after the Minnesota Legislature legalized recreational use of marijuana and allowed new types of cannabis businesses to open in 2025.

Freeborn County Administrator Ryan Rasmusson said the county’s current land use ordinance does not include language regarding the cannabis industry, and they want to avoid making arbitrary decisions regarding the placement of cannabis-related businesses in the county. State statute allows local governments to put in place interim ordinances to give them time to study or consider adoption of reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of cannabis businesses.

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Rasmusson stated the state Office of Cannabis Management recently developed a guide for local governments regarding licensing and development of an ordinance. The county plans to review this in developing its ordinance, and he hoped the county would be done before the Jan. 1 date.

In a public hearing on the issue, lawyer Matt Benda, whose firm oversees nine municipalities in the county, thanked the county for taking the lead on the issue. He said he would be attending a series of meetings as needed and helping the smaller cities decide if they need their own moratoriums moving forward.

Jerry Collins, owner of Big Dream Organics in Albert Lea, said he was on board with the city of Albert Lea’s moratorium as most of the concerns he has heard are more with the dispensaries than with other potential parts of the cannabis industry.

However, he said he is concerned about the county approving a blanket moratorium on all new cannabis businesses, particularly for cultivation and processing, as licensing is already opened to social equity candidates.

He said because of the risks of such an operation, it is likely the cannabis cultivation and manufacturing businesses will be out in the county, as opposed to in city limits, so they can be away from the public eye.

There are working groups looking at commercial warehouse-style cultivation facilities, but the infrastructure needs to be started now, he said.

“The problem is, if we don’t start cultivation relatively soon … we will lose out on those opportunities because other counties are going to allow that early cultivation procedure to begin right when the state allows it,” Collins said. “Basically we are cutting our own necks here with a blanket moratorium on all things cannabis until we can catch up with the statute.”

He asked that the board consider removing the cultivation and manufacturing facilities from the moratorium and said that it would risk potential tax base coming to the county — instead of supporting a regulated industry.

“If that moratorium were to prohibit that, it will never happen in Freeborn County because by the time we get to January-ish or whenever you guys have your statute put together, there is no time to build out that infrastructure,” Collins said. “It’s not an overnight project.”

Fifth District Commissioner Nicole Eckstrom said she thought it was important to have a blanket moratorium because of how the state has gone about with the implementation; however, she thought the county should not wait until the last minute to approve its ordinance. She said this was important not only for the county, but the business owners and other residents who are not a part of the business.

Eckstrom said she did not want to sacrifice a thoughtful, sound policy though she understands that people want to take advantage of early licensure.

Third District Commissioner John Forman said he agreed, noting that people dispensing will need time to set up as well.

Fourth District Commissioner Chris Shoff questioned if there had been any municipalities in the county that were interested in setting up a municipal dispensary.

Rasmusson said he was not aware of any cities the had expressed interest so far.

Shoff also asked if there was a way to calculate how much the county is spending on developing the new ordinance.