Legal cannabis bill gets first public hearing in Minnesota House committee

Representatives in a Minnesota House committee hosted the first public hearing about a proposed marijuana legalization bill Wednesday. 

The hearing in the House of Representatives’ Commerce, Finance and Policy Committee was the first of what Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said would be many more committee stops and further discussion this year. Winkler called Wednesday's conversation the "kickoff" for the bill, which the chairman said has garnered a great deal of public interest. It passed out of the committee Wednesday on a 10-7 vote. 

The bill, which would legalize adult-use cannabis in the state of Minnesota, was first introduced at the beginning of the month by Winkler and other DFL lawmakers. In his opening remarks, Winkler said marijuana is already "widley available" in Minnesota, but is "poorly regulated." 

Winkler and other advocates in the hearing touted the plant's health benefits for pain-related ailments and disorders like PTSD. He also said cannabis has "broad" public support in Minnesota. 

Those who opposed or questioned the bill argued for more liquor-style enforcement of marketing and sales near schools and children and another argued that the bill would create a new smoking industry as Minnesota works to combat tobacco smoking and vaping statewide. 

The proposed bill would create a regulatory structure that its writers hope will develop a micro-business and craft cannabis market in the state. Additionally, the bill would fund public health awareness, prevent youth access to cannabis and improve substance abuse treatments. Limited homegrown cannabis operations are also addressed in the bill.

According to Winkler, the bill also seeks to address criminal justice inequities as it relates to cannabis. The bill would expunge the records of "most" Minnesotans convicted of cannabis crimes, Winkler’s office said in a release.

"Black and white Minnesotans consume cannabis at very similar rates," said the release. "Yet while Black Minnesotans make up just 5 percent of the population they represent 30 percent of cannabis arrests."

Commenter Kim Bemis argued, however, that legalization as a means for social equity is not the answer, saying marijuana stores in other states are disproportionately owned by White people selling product in predominantly Black neighborhoods. 

Eden Prairie hemp farmer Aaron Peterson noted that cannabis farming is actually one of the most equitable forms of farming due to the limited amount of machinery needed to start a growing operation and the need for hand labor. 

A total of 15 states and three territories have legalized cannabis and 36 states and four territories have approved medical marijuana and cannabis programs.