Minnesota House approves legalizing recreational marijuana; Senate unlikely to follow

By: - May 13, 2021 12:36 pm

The Minnesota House is set to vote on legalizing adult-use cannabis, which would make Minnesota the latest state to legalize the drug. Above, a worker cares for plants at Essence Vegas’ marijuana cultivation facility in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

The Minnesota House passed a wide-ranging proposal to legalize recreational marijuana Thursday by a vote of 72-61, drawing a handful of Republican votes that were enough for passage. 

The measure would expunge most cannabis convictions and create a regulatory framework for retail sales. It is the first time a chamber of the Minnesota Legislature has moved to legalize the drug. 

The DFL-led proposal steadily gained steam in the House, even picking up some Republican votes along the dozen committee stops it made. 

If the bill were to pass the Senate and is signed by Gov. Tim Walz, Minnesota would join 17 states that have legalized cannabis, including other midwestern states like Illinois, Michigan and South Dakota. Passage in the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely, however. 

The issue has become a top priority for House Democratic-Farmer-Labor leaders, who say it could help address the disproportionate impact of drug laws on communities of color. Supporters of the measure point to a recent ACLU report that found that Black Minnesotans are 5.4 times more likely than white Minnesotans to be arrested for cannabis violations.

Sponsored by House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, the campaign to legalize recreational pot has included more than a dozen town halls across the state.

“We have this bill before us today because Minnesotans have decided it is time to legalize cannabis and right the wrongs of the criminal prohibition of cannabis that has failed Minnesota,” Winkler said shortly before debate was set to begin.

In just a few years, the issue of legalizing recreational pot in Minnesota has emerged as a mainstream priority after languishing at the State Capitol. Public opinion has shifted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana: a 2020 Star Tribune/MPR News poll found that 51% of Minnesotans supported recreational marijuana compared with just 30% in 2014.

Despite the shift in public opinion in recent years, Senate Republicans oppose the effort, all but ensuring the proposal will not become law this year. 

Winkler, however, said it’s possible some aspects of the bill could become law, including the addition of marijuana flower and dried leaves to the state’s medical marijuana program. Doing so would help bring costs down for patients enrolled in the program.

Currently, the state’s medical marijuana program, which is heavily regulated, does not allow the drug in flower form. 

“I think there’s a very strong chance that we can get flower in the medical program this year,” he said. 

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, criticized the vote, saying DFL leaders have misplaced priorities and should instead be focusing on cutting taxes for businesses. Still, enough GOP members voted with the DFL for passage. 

The fiscal impact of legalizing pot would be vast. 

A Legislative Budget Office estimate shows that it would cost more than $72 million to implement in the upcoming two-year budget cycle, which starts July 1. Some of that could be offset by an estimated $14.2 million in revenue collections on the taxation of cannabis. 

Budget analysts forecast that revenue from cannabis would skyrocket to more than $161 million by the end of fiscal year 2025, creating a net gain of $56 million after accounting for state government costs for legal marijuana. 

State Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said Thursday the potential of legalized adult-use cannabis would not only raise revenue, but help create jobs in the cannabis industry and free up police resources that would otherwise be used toward enforcing drug laws.

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