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Clemon Dabney climbs into a white jumpsuit that zipped up from his toes to his neck, stretches a hairnet over his fountain of dreadlocks, and steps into a sterile lab full of glass beakers and complicated machinery.
Dabney, who is quick with a smile despite striking an imposing figure that towers over his shared laboratory, carefully extracts compounds from hemp plants to infuse into everyday food items. Dabney uses his doctorate in botany and plant biology to create “distillate,” a honey-colored liquid that smells skunky like marijuana.
Dabney is the chief sciences officer at Superior Molecular, a White Bear Lake company that creates the ingredients for hemp-based THC products sold throughout the state, including drinks from local breweries like Indeed Brewing Company and Modist Brewing. Superior Molecular recently started creating its own edible products, including Dabney’s namesake Dr. Dabs Healthy Highs Maple Candy, which includes maple syrup that he taps from trees in Taylors Falls.
He’s also one of several entrepreneurs of color in the hemp industry who are pushing next year’s state Legislature to legalize recreational marijuana, which is in the same plant species as hemp. Marijuana plants contain more tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, the psychoactive chemical that alters users’ physical and mental states when ingested. Dabney hopes that legalization will open doors for entrepreneurs like himself, and rectify past stigmas and the criminalization of marijuana that fell disproportionately on people of color.
The prospects of legalizing recreational marijuana in the state became more viable when the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party unexpectedly took control of the state House and Senate after last month’s election. DFL Governor Tim Walz also won a second term in the same election, and has signaled that legalizing marijuana will be a priority for him the next legislative session, which convenes January 3.
Some state legislators are pledging that racial equity will be a major component of forthcoming legislation to legalize recreational marijuana. The state legalized medical marijuana in 2014.
“There’s a very strong desire in my caucus to see that the people who were most impacted by the prohibition against cannabis have the opportunity to benefit by the legalization of cannabis,” said state representative Zach Stevenson, DFL-Coon Rapids.
Stevenson is expected to take a lead role in drafting legislation in the Minnesota House of Representatives to legalize marijuana.
Lawmakers in the House are planning to use a comprehensive marijuana legalization bill that the House approved in 2021 as the blueprint for a 2023 bill, according to Stevenson, other lawmakers, and advocates who spoke to Sahan Journal. That bill, which took two years of research and public feedback to develop, included measures for economic development and provisions to expunge some marijuana convictions.
Outgoing state Representative Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, the former House majority leader, was the chief author of the 2021 bill. The bill passed the DFL-controlled House with some Republicans voting in favor of it. The Senate, which was controlled by Republicans at the time, didn’t hold any hearings on the bill, effectively killing it.
The bill would have automatically expunged all marijuana convictions that were petty misdemeanors and misdemeanors. It would have also created an independent board to consider expunging gross misdemeanor and felony marijuana convictions on a case-by-case basis.
The 2021 bill would have also offered start-up grants for businesses that met the definition of “social equity” companies.
“It’s imperfect because the [federal] Constitution has limits on race-based laws,” Winkler said of the bill’s “social equity” business grants. “So what we did was use zip codes and income as the best predictor for what we could find.”
Winkler’s term in the Legislature ends next month, but he plans to continue advocating for the legalization of marijuana. Winkler said the equity measures in his 2021 bill should be viewed as the minimum starting point for a bill in next year’s Legislature.
“These provisions may need to be improved, and people may have figured out better ways of doing it,” Winkler said. “There’s still a lot of opportunity to improve and for the public to weigh in on it.”
Access for tribal nations
Dabney was one of several stakeholders who provided input on the 2021 bill. He’ll likely weigh in again this coming legislative session. One thing he wants to push for is language in the bill that would allow tribal nations in Minnesota to participate in and help shape the state’s marijuana program. Without the language, Dabney said, Indigenous entrepreneurs will be limited in their ability to participate in a legal marijuana market.
Such language isn’t required for tribal nations to partake in a legal market, according to Winkler, but it would allow tribes and the state to set parameters for how tribes can participate outside of reservations.
The 2021 House bill lacked language that would have allowed such negotiations between the state and tribes. Winkler said he expects new legislation to include such language.
Dabney also wants to see limitations on the ability for municipal and county governments to pass their own ordinances restricting or prohibiting the sale of legal marijuana products in their jurisdictions. Some Minnesota cities, including Richfield, barred the sale of small-dose, hemp-derived cannabis edibles after state lawmakers legalized them earlier this year.
“If you leave the market open, there’s no chance for places with higher levels of people of color or Indigenous people to be left out of the system,” Dabney said. “If we start shutting down places, we’ll be decreasing opportunities for people who live in those areas.”
Advocates and entrepreneurs want to see easier access to state licenses granting participation in the marijuana industry.
Keondre Jordan, owner of Potent Punch, sells hemp-derived drinks and edibles online and at a storefront in the Midtown Global Market in south Minneapolis. He said he doesn’t want to see a legal marijuana market that mimics the arrangement in Illinois, in which the state offers marijuana licenses to a limited number of businesses that are selected on a points-based system.
License applicants in Illinois are judged on a formula where points are assigned to them based on factors including their finances, their operating plans, and whether the applicant is a military veteran, among other criteria. Applicants with the most points are granted licenses. Jordan said the Illinois process is restrictive, and that he’d like to see licenses widely available for businesses who want to participate in the industry.
“I just want to make sure licenses are accessible for everyone,” Jordan said.
Stigma against entrepreneurs of color and cannabis
Angela Dawson has grown hemp on her farm for the past two years. She said she’s encountered issues accessing capital for her business, 40 Acre Co-Op, in Sandstone, Minnesota.
Banks typically charge her larger-than-usual fees for her business account, she said. At one point, a credit union she used told her she had 30 days to remove the money from her account. There are two main reasons for this, she said: The first is the historic stigma against the cannabis industry. The second is her ethnicity and gender.
“I’m a Black hemp farmer,” she said. “Things are tougher for us. Banking services, they make an assumption. I do research and have contracts, I’m compliant, I’m on the Hemp Council Advisory, and still they suspect I’m doing something illegal.”
Dawson, who runs the farm with her husband, hopes this won’t be the case if recreational marijuana becomes legal. She, like Dabney, wants to do business in legal recreational marijuana.
Dawson is part of a group called the Great Rise, which plans to push for equity measures in any proposed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana in Minnesota. The group lists its priorities as embedding legislative language that guarantees the expungement of prior marijuana convictions, and that encourages economic development opportunities for entrepreneurs of color.
Dawson said she wants a law that expunges the criminal records of local growers and business owners who are currently cultivating and selling marijuana illegally, and that allows them to participate in a legal market. An unintended consequence of legalization in other states, she said, is that people who grew or sold marijuana before legalization were pushed out of the legal market, prompting them to sell deadly, illegal drugs like fentanyl.
“What I’m hearing from the medical side—doctors and physicians—and from people in the recovery community is when there are no options for people currently selling, they are going to look for the next illegal market,” Dawson said. “Sometimes they are going to harsher drugs for sales to make a living.”
Dawson said she’d also like to see the state create a reparations fund using money from the sale and licensing of marijuana, which would then be distributed to “the people most harmed by the war on drugs”—something she noted was absent in the previous 2021 bill.
“Otherwise the money just goes back into the state coffers and we maintain the status quo of how things traditionally have been done,” she said.
It’s unclear whether such requests will make it into a new marijuana legalization bill.
“We’re not even a month past the election,” said Stevenson, the DFL lawmaker who is expected to take a lead role in drafting marijuana legislation next year. “We’re definitely in the very early stages of having the conversations about what is possible this year and how that would look.”
How is marijuana taxed?
If recreational marijuana is legalized in Minnesota, one issue lawmakers will also have to tackle is how to tax the product. Imposing special taxes on marijuana could have its limitations, said a state lawmaker.
State Representative Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, will chair the House Tax Committee in the 2023 legislative session. She also played a lead role in the 2021 marijuana legalization bill that passed the House but died in the Senate.
That bill didn’t include special taxes on marijuana products, unlike in some states that legalized marijuana. Colorado, for example, created an excise tax on marijuana products that goes toward the construction of public school buildings.
Marijuana is a volatile product economically, Gomez said, and therefore unreliable in generating significant revenue for the state. When Colorado first legalized marijuana a decade ago, one pound of the plant cost $1,316 at wholesale prices. Today the wholesale price of marijuana in Colorado costs $658 per pound, which means the tax revenue the state collects on the product has decreased proportionately.
Gomez said that House staffers conducted research for the 2021 bill, and estimated that recreational marijuana sales would have brought in between $30 to $60 million of tax revenue to Minnesota each year. That is a drop in the bucket compared to the state’s overall budget of more than $5 billion, she said.
“I think people like to talk about the great things we’re going to do with the weed revenue,” Gomez said. “But we’re not going to solve education with weed taxes. We’re not going to solve any major problem with weed taxes.”