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Will 2023 be the year Minnesota legalizes weed? The odds are higher than ever

While Democrats in the House and Senate have not yet rolled out their priorities for the 2023 legislative session, Gov. Tim Walz and prominent DFL lawmakers have already expressed support for legalization.

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Gov. Tim Walz and some DFL lawmakers have expressed support for legalization of recreational marijuana.
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ST. PAUL — With Democrats in complete control of Minnesota government, the chances of the state legalizing recreational marijuana appear the strongest they've ever been.

For the past six years, the divided government in St. Paul was a roadblock to any efforts to bring legal pot to Minnesota. Republicans took control of the Senate in 2015 and were not willing to budge on the issue. But now that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party holds the House and governor’s office and gained a 34-33 majority in the Senate, things could change quickly.

“The odds have never been better,” said Kurtis Hanna, adult-use cannabis lobbyist and co-founder of NORML Minnesota, a legalization advocacy group.

While Democrats in the House and Senate have not yet rolled out their priorities for the 2023 legislative session, Gov. Tim Walz and prominent DFL lawmakers have already expressed support for legalization. On a livestream this week, former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura said Walz told him legalization was one of the first things he hopes to get done when the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 3. A Walz spokesperson confirmed the comments to WCCO-TV on Thursday.

Walz called for legal recreational marijuana in his supplemental budget recommendations at the beginning of this year. And when he took office in 2019, he directed state agencies to begin preparing for eventual legalization. He’s the first governor to support the policy.

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz presents his administration's supplemental budget recommendations Jan. 26 to reporters at a news conference at the Department of Revenue in St. Paul.
Alex Derosier / File / Forum News Service

What could legalization look like in Minnesota? The governor recommended funding for a new Cannabis Management Office to regulate the industry, grants for business owners seeking to enter the legal market, and education programs on the potential adverse effects of marijuana use. It also called for a tax on marijuana and the expungement of nonviolent offenses involving marijuana.

Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said the prohibition of marijuana hasn’t worked for Minnesota, and the state should instead seek to harness its economic benefits and allow law enforcement to focus on violent crime.

The Minnesota House in 2021 approved a bill legalizing marijuana for recreational use and expunging prior convictions for low-level possession, but it never got a hearing in the Senate. Hanna said Senate Republicans drew a clear line in the sand in the early months of Walz’s first term and he didn’t expect that stance to shift if they won another four years of control.

At a Thursday news conference, incoming Senate Minority leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, would not comment on whether his fellow Republicans would shift on the issue. Senate DFLers were similarly non-committal on Wednesday.

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Historically, opponents of legalization have included the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, the Minnesota Catholic Conference as well as the state trucking and police associations. Concerns include roadway safety issues and potential negative impacts on mental health.

Minnesota already took a big step toward legalizing recreational marijuana for adults earlier this year. A law that went into effect July 1 allowed for the sale of THC-containing food and beverages to be sold in the state.

People 21 and older can buy products containing servings of up to 5 milligrams of THC. A single package of edibles — or drinkables — may not contain more than 50 milligrams. Products must be derived from legally certified hemp, which contains no more than 0.3% THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive part of cannabis.

“The fact that half the toothpaste is already out of the tube due to last session's hemp-derived THC law passing means that this policy proposal isn't as drastic of a change to Minnesotans, who have been able to buy THC beverages at bars and restaurants since the summer,” Hanna said.

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The move caught many by surprise, including some of the lawmakers who voted in favor.

Some holes remain following Minnesota’s legalization of edible and drinkable THC products, namely enforcement and regulation. Edible THC products might be legal under the new law, but the question of enforcement is not addressed. While the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy is tasked with regulating cannabis-containing products, enforcement is up to cities and counties. Full legalization will likely come along with stronger state regulations and taxes.

Legal recreational marijuana could potentially generate large amounts of revenue for the state . A University of Minnesota Duluth study published in August found the state was missing out on up to $46 million in revenue from legal edibles alone, which are currently not taxed.

On Tuesday, voters in Maryland and Missouri approved legal recreational marijuana. A ballot measure in North Dakota failed.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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