Democrats say Minnesota's THC edibles law passed quietly 'on purpose'

Minnesota House Democrats who successfully pushed to legalize some THC edibles and beverages say they worked quietly to avoid negative attention that could've torpedoed the bill and set back their ultimate goal to legalize recreational marijuana.

"We absolutely did this on purpose. It was an intentional step forward," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, told reporters at a Tuesday news conference.

The law allows Minnesota retailers to sell gummies and drinks with up to five milligrams of THC per serving, or 50 milligrams per package. It took effect July 1, catching much of the public off guard. Customers packed hemp shops in the Twin Cities this weekend and reacted with surprise to the new law.

The legislative effort did not follow the usual script of how a bill becomes law. Democrats said the lack of publicity campaigns filled with press releases, news conferences, and testimony from advocates was intentional because unwanted attention from critics could have pressured Republicans to block the bill.

"Sometimes legislation benefits from a lot of publicity, and sometimes legislation benefits from the ability to do the work more quietly," Winkler said. "But it was all done in the public eye."

The THC provision was part of a 400-page health and human services bill that passed the Republican-controlled Senate unanimously on the second-to-last day of the legislative session in May.

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller nodded his approval of the new law, calling it "bipartisan" in a statement and predicting that it would keep THC products away from children.

But fellow Republican Sen. Jim Abeler, who chairs the Senate Human Services committee, has told reporters that he was surprised by what the bill had done. On May 19, after the conference committee he co-chaired approved the THC provision, Abeler said, "That doesn’t legalize marijuana. We didn’t just do that, did we?"

The measure does not legalize marijuana, a point that advocates for full legalization were quick to point out Tuesday. It allows retailers to sell low-dose THC products to adults ages 21 and older. The law prohibits companies from marketing to children. 

A question over the regulation of candy-like gummies underscored the confusion that exists over the law.

Democrats said their goal was to prevent stores from selling candy-like gummies. But the law doesn't do that, said Jill Phillips, the executive director for the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy. While the law prohibits retailers from injecting THC into commercially available candy, companies can manufacture their own, she said.

Breweries cannot sell THC-infused beer on-site or in to-go containers. But a brewery could sell a CBD-infused product through its distribution channels after federal regulators sign off on the formulation and labeling, Phillips said.

The Legislature did not spell out who will handle enforcement, and lawmakers will likely not be in session to clarify the matter until next January. The Board of Pharmacy has posted a complaint form online, though the enforcement task will likely fall to cities and counties that license businesses in their communities.

State Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, said she was talking with municipal officials and planned to say more about local enforcement options later this week. She declined to outline those plans on Tuesday.

"It was a wild west before, let's be clear," Edelson said, when reporters asked if the lack of clarity would create an anything-goes environment.

Board of Pharmacy officials were initially involved with crafting the provision in March, according to emails between the board's then-executive director, Cody Wiberg, and House staff.

Democrats later added the current language allowing up to 5 milligrams per dose, but did not do so at the board's request, Phillips said. Board staff did not object to the higher limits, she said.