Minnesota Adult-Use Cannabis Bill Steers Through Three House Committees in One Week

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An adult-use cannabis legalization bill completed a House trifecta last week in Minnesota, where primary sponsor Rep. Ryan Winkler helped steer the legislation through three committees. House File 600 has now been approved by seven committees overall in the lower chamber.

First introduced in early February, H.F. 600 has 35 lawmakers signed on for sponsorship—all Democrats, who own a 52% majority in the House. Included in the framework of the bill, which would allow for adults 21 years and older to possess up to 10 pounds of cannabis in a private residence, up to 1.5 ounces in public and grow up to eight plants (four mature) for personal use, H.F. 600 also includes expungement, on-site consumption, delivery and social-equity provisions. The bill would also establish a Cannabis Management Board and advisory councils.

Mostly tiptoeing along party lines, H.F. 600 cleared the Environmental and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee by an 11-7 vote on April 12, the Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee by a 9-7 vote on April 14, and the State Government Finance and Elections Committee by a 7-5 vote on April 17.

Specifically, during the Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee hearing, Rep. Winkler, who is also the House majority leader, said, “The purpose of House File 600 is to eliminate the harm that cannabis has in our society. The primary harm that cannabis poses in Minnesota is the prohibition and criminal enforcement of cannabis. The goal of House File 600 is to shift an illegal marketplace that is policed and overpoliced disproportionately and instead to create a policy of repair and opportunity for those most adversely affected by the war on drugs.”

In Minnesota, whites and African Americans use cannabis at approximately the same rate, yet arrest records are even more disproportionate in the state than they are nationally, said Munira Mohamed, a policy associate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. Mohamed was one of several testifiers who advocated in favor of the bill during the hearing.

According to Mohamed, a Black person is 5.4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than a white person in Minnesota, which is significantly higher than the national average of a Black person being 3.6 times more likely to be arrested.

“Cannabis laws desperately need reform due to the stark racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests and the fact that they haven’t gotten better in Minnesota or nationwide,” she said. “The disproportionate targeting and over-policing of Black communities for a substance that is equally used amongst the population is a natural consequence of marijuana criminalization and a byproduct of the failed war on drugs. It goes without saying that the personal cost of those arrested can ruin lives.”

Being caught with even the smallest amount of cannabis can risk one’s housing status, employment opportunities, child custody determinations, immigration status and eligibility for financial aid, Mohamed said.

But not all testifiers during the hearing were in support of legalization efforts. Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson, who represents the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, said passing H.F. 600 would not make communities safer and would increase the ability of Minnesota’s youth to access cannabis.

“Currently, our state is in a desperate battle to save lives in an opioid epidemic coupled with serious drug issues at the core of most crime in general across our state, from catalytic converter thefts to murders,” Torgerson said. “Drug use, trafficking, addiction and deaths are increasing. Now is not the time to take this step. In my review of this bill, and since our association last testified before you on this topic, nothing in this bill has been done to solve the issues most concerning to law enforcement and has created a new concern—the first being youth access.”

In addition to his concerns about how adult-use legalization may impact youth, Torgerson said his second main issue about H.F. 600 was road safety without a tool, like a breathalyzer, available to law enforcement to administer roadside tests for impaired drivers, he said. He also took issue with the bill’s expungement clause because it would impact law enforcement’s ability to prohibit persons from carrying and purchasing guns when conducting background checks, he said. Torgerson was speaking on behalf of the 87 elected sheriffs of Minnesota.

In his opening remarks as the bill’s chief author, Winkler recognized some of the concerns associated with adult-use legalization.

“Cannabis does have some harm,” he said. “It is not conducive to the development of adolescent brains and it can in certain cases exacerbate certain psychological conditions. Cannabis, however, is much safer than legal substances like alcohol and tobacco, which we regulate and tax. The approach of House Fill 600 is to address the real harms of cannabis and create an opportunity for Minnesota to move past a failed policy that disproportionately impacts people of color, and instead create an opportunity for those communities most adversely affected to participate in a legal, regulated marketplace with jobs, with business ownership and with expungement of criminal records.”

Also, Winkler said the current expungement process in Minnesota is cumbersome. H.F. 600 seeks to make expungement automatic for those who have less than a felony conviction through the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, by identifying those individuals and submitting their records for review of a legal expungement order, he said.

“The goal is to eliminate those records that are attached to people who have engaged in activity that was criminal but is now seen as an illegitimate criminal prohibition by more than two-thirds of the public,” Winkler said. “The criminal justice system cannot legitimately use the power of arrest, the power of conviction, the power in some cases of taking life for a use of a substance that more than two-thirds of the public believe can be used safely and should be legal. It is not legitimate.”

Clearing three committees last week, H.F. 600 was referred to the Education Finance Division and Education Policy Committee.

Winkler said he expects the bill to conclude its rounds of panel hearings by the end of April, before the possibility of a full roll call vote on the House floor in May.

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