Legal marijuana push starts in Minnesota; supporters say '2023 is the year'

Supporters of legal marijuana unveiled their legislation Thursday at the state Capitol, vowing to take advantage of full Democratic control of the Legislature and pass a pot bill into law in 2023.

The 243-page measure is similar to one that passed the House in 2021 before getting blocked by Republicans who then controlled the Senate. It legalizes marijuana use by anyone 21 years of age and older. The bill creates a licensing and taxation system while implementing an expungement process for marijuana-related convictions.

"Minnesotans deserve the freedom and respect to make responsible decisions about cannabis decisions themselves," state Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, the lead House author, said during a news conference. "Our current laws are doing more harm than good." 

Stephenson, the House Commerce committee chairman, said he had scheduled a hearing in his committee for Wednesday. Similar hearings will soon be scheduled in the Senate.

Critics have said the bill fails to address public safety concerns that led police groups to oppose previous legalization efforts. Republicans cautioned the DFL to move slowly.

"We don't take the risks that marijuana poses to youth, minorities, and the vulnerable, lightly," Senate GOP Leader Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks said in an emailed statement. "The Senate DFL will need to decide if they want to rush this process to keep their political partners happy or take their time to decide if full-blown legalization is the right thing for Minnesota." 

The bill creates an 8% tax on marijuana sales that could bring in $150 million a year in tax revenue, Democratic lawmakers said. That money would fund a licensing and regulatory system, along with a state-run grant program to boost local- and minority-owned businesses as they compete with established out-of-state firms. 

If a bill passes in 2023, marijuana could become legal within months, Stephenson said. A second element of the bill, expungement of past crimes, would happen sooner.

The legislation sets up a process for people with past marijuana-related convictions can have those offenses wiped off the books. Minorities have disproportionately been convicted of such crimes, supporters of expungement said. 

"We are going to get this done in 2023. We are going to make sure that includes expungement and that we right these wrongs," said state Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul. 

While Democrats hold slim majorities in the House and Senate, the bill's passage isn't guaranteed. House and Senate leaders have said it will require several committee hearings. Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic said this week that she wouldn't know if she had a pro-legalization majority until the committee process is underway. 

"It means we’re doing education sessions. We’re bringing community in to meet with senators," said state Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville. "But we are committed to moving this through the process this year."