House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said an under-the-radar approach to legalizing THC products was necessary to get it past a divided Legislature. He was joined by fellow Democrats and cannabis activists including NORML’s Michael Ford (right) for a news conference outside Indeed Brewing in northeast Minneapolis on July 5, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.
House Democrats responsible for legalizing low-dose THC products said on Tuesday the under-the-radar approach that seemingly took Republicans by surprise was a necessary gambit to fully legalizing marijuana in the future.
“We absolutely did this on purpose. It was an intentional step forward,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who authored another bill that fully legalized marijuana but failed to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The provision was tucked into a large health and human services bill and legalizes the production and sale of edible products with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The food and beverages can only be sold to people over 21 and with no more than 5 milligrams of THC per serving — about half the dose allowed in other states with legal marijuana — or 50 milligrams per package.
It was signed into law by the governor in early June but went largely unnoticed by the public until the day before it went into effect on July 1.
“Sometimes legislation benefits from a lot of publicity. Sometimes legislation benefits from the ability to do the work more quietly, but it was all done in the public eye,” Winkler said when asked why Democrats didn’t publicize a bill they’re now all celebrating.
Republicans have responded both with surprise and subdued approval.
Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said it has a “broader effect” than he expected. Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said in a statement he supported the “bipartisan legislation” that regulates the sale of products with THC.
The law has few restrictions on the sale — virtually any store can sell THC edibles — but does prohibit the edibles from looking like cartoon characters, animals or fruit so as not to make them attractive to kids. The products must also come in child-resistant packages.
But already there are problems with THC products looking too much like candy — they are sold as gummies and chocolates — according to the bill’s author, Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina.
“Later this week, I’ll be having more information about how we plan to handle that as a state,” Edelson said during the Tuesday news conference. “There’s going to be some problems in terms of how do we enforce this.”
Edelson said she and her fellow lawmakers are working with the League of Minnesota Cities, indicating they will ask local governments play an active role in regulating THC edibles. The state Legislature is not in session and the governor would have to call a special session to pass any updates to the law.
The Board of Pharmacy, which mostly oversees licensing pharmacists and pharmacies, is tasked with regulating the potency, packaging and age requirements of the new products. It’s a large task for an agency that has fewer than two dozen employees.
The Democrats’ answer to any problems with the current law is to vote more of them into office this November, promising to pass full legalization if they control the House, Senate and governorship.
“The right thing to do is to elect Democrats, send us back to St. Paul so that we can continue working on this important issue,” said Rep. Jess Hanson, DFL-Burnsville.
The House Democrats, joined by activists and a hemp farmer, held the news conference outside Indeed Brewing in northeast Minneapolis, which Winkler suggested could benefit from selling beverages with THC.
The guidance from the Board of Pharmacy, however, says restaurants and bars may not add THC to food or beverages for onsite or take away consumption. THC also may not be added to beer or other alcoholic beverages.
Democrats emphasized the foot-in-the-door legalization bill furthers racial justice, as Black and Indigenous people have been disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for marijuana crimes.
The law, however, doesn’t do anything to explicitly advance racial equity, such as giving licensing priority or grants to people from areas that were targeted in the War on Drugs — although those efforts have largely floundered elsewhere in the country. That means people with capital and relationships to financial lenders and existing THC businesses will likely dominate the Minnesota legal marijuana market.
Angela Dawson, a Black hemp farmer from Pine County, said the law isn’t perfect, but it will create more opportunities for people of color.
“We’re working with the scraps we’re given, quite frankly,” Dawson said. “We’re going to continue to push (an) equity agenda. We’re going to ask Minnesota to also be advocates for equity within this system.”
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