Legal marijuana clears first Minnesota House committee

Supporters of marijuana legalization got their bill through a Minnesota House committee Wednesday, with a maze of required votes ahead before the measure can become law.

The House Commerce committee advanced the bill on a voice vote with some Republican opposition. Supporters and opponents of marijuana legalization crowded into the hearing room to share their opinions, even though they'll have many more chances.

"Members, Minnesotans are ready," said state Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids and the bill's author. "Cannabis should not be illegal in Minnesota."

The 243-page bill is one of the longest and most complicated that lawmakers will consider all session. It legalizes the cultivation and sale of marijuana products to consumers ages 21 and older under a statewide regulatory structure. The measure also sets up a process to wipe away past marijuana-related convictions.

Numerous issues remain. While legal marijuana advocates favor a statewide licensing structure, city officials say they should be in charge of regulating local businesses.

"When there’s going to be a problem – and there will be a problem with a retailer in the future – it’s just not an option for us to point people to St. Paul and say, 'Go talk to the state government about this," Scott Neal, Edina's city manager, told lawmakers.

RELATED: Top Minnesota DFL lawmakers expect marijuana bill to pass within two years

Republicans sought an amendment that would've given cities more control, but the DFL-controlled committee voted against it. 

"What we don’t want is a patchwork of rules across the state," Stephenson said.

The measure calls for the creation of a state Cannabis Management Office to handle the regulatory system, which lawmakers estimate would require $100 million a year to operate. That would pay for licensing, testing, enforcement, and grants to boost local- and minority-owned businesses against more established, out-of-state companies.

The bill imposes an 8% marijuana tax on top of the state's 6.8% sales tax to fund the regulatory system. If the legislation passes this year, supporters expect that consumers could walk into a pot shop and buy marijuana in summer 2024 at the earliest.

Business owners said the grant program would be critical to preventing out-of-state firms from dominating the market.

"Let’s avoid that by creating a path for small businesses like myself who are trying to serve our community by creating avenues to participate instead of being left out," said Veronika Alfaro, who owns Mi Sota Essence in Eagan.

A similar bill passed the House two years ago, and advocates expect the same thing to happen this year. A bigger question is the Senate, where Democrats hold a single-seat majority. 

Gov. Tim Walz said he talked with Stephenson and state Sen. Lindsay Port, the Senate bill's author, on Tuesday. While the governor wants the measure to pass, he said the Legislature should keep working out the details.

"I think the current system doesn’t work. I don’t think prohibition works," Walz told reporters. "I think there have been inequities in this. I’m open to them figuring out how to make it work best."