Marijuana advocate Marcus Harcus, left, and state Representative Zack Stephenson share a moment after the marijuana legalization bill clears its first committee of the 2023 legislative session. Credit: Joey Peters | Sahan Journal

Advocates of legalizing recreational marijuana in Minnesota urged lawmakers Wednesday to take bold steps to ensure legislation would be fair to those who have suffered most because of the state’s ban on cannabis. 

A mammoth 300-page bill that would create a legal market for marijuana received the first of what are likely to be many hearings in the state Capitol this year, and was approved by the House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee on a party-line voice vote. 

While sponsors say social equity is one of their main goals, stakeholders said the legislation should go even farther.  “I challenge you today to create the most equitable cannabis law in the country,” said Nathan Ratner, a member of The Great Rise, a local coalition of hemp and CBD stakeholders advocating for equity in a legal marijuana program, during public testimony. 

With the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party now controlling the House and the Senate, lawmakers are expected to bring the bill to the finish line before the Legislature adjourns for the year in May. Governor Tim Walz has said he would sign such a bill into law. Walz is expected to include money for a state marijuana program in the budget proposal he releases later this month. 

The House bill, which would create a new state agency to regulate the marijuana market, already features several social equity measures. A Division of Social Equity would exist within the agency, which would prioritize “social equity applicants” for licenses to do business in the program. The bill defines social equity applicants as people living in low-income areas, people who live in areas experiencing “a disproportionately large amount of cannabis enforcement,” and military veterans who “lost honorable status due to a cannabis related offense.”

The bill would automatically expunge all marijuana-related misdemeanors and petty misdemeanors from anyone’s legal record. It would create an expungement board to consider clearing marijuana-related gross misdemeanors and felonies on a case-by-case basis.

State records show that Black Minnesotans are five times more likely than white Minnesotans to be arrested for a marijuana offense. Such disparities prompted lawmakers to make social equity one of the biggest objectives of the legislation, said state Representative Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, the bill’s chief author. 

“Our goal with this bill, as we create a new marketplace, is to prioritize people who have been harmed by the prohibition,” Stephenson told Sahan Journal, “And to prioritize small and local [businesses] over big and national.” 

Still, a number of people who spoke during public comment said the bill should go even further. Ratner called for the new Office of Cannabis Management to give 60 percent of the state’s marijuana licenses to social equity applicants. He said that New York leads the nation by prioritizing half of its marijuana licenses to social equity applicants. 

“I challenge you to beat New York,” Ratner said.

Stephenson told Sahan Journal that there was room to talk about Ratner’s proposal, but would not explicitly commit to supporting it. 

Marcus Harcus, a lobbyist for Uniflora Holistics, a local hemp and CBD company, criticized elements of the bill as “prohibition-lite.” Under the bill, people who’ve been convicted of felonies during the past five years are barred from obtaining marijuana licenses. Harcus said he’s concerned about people currently working in the illegal marijuana market who will be barred from the legal market under this provision. 

“There may be a way to appeal and be reconsidered, but that’s probably going to stop some good people from crossing over,” Harcus told Sahan Journal. 

Stephenson said he’s open to Harcus’s suggestions to change this part of the bill. 

“We should take a look at the prohibitions he’s talking about and decide if they are really necessary and if they really advance any public policy purpose, and we may find that they don’t and they need to go, ” Stephenson said.

Harcus did offer cautious praise for one part of the bill, the absence of a fee for yearly renewal of a license to sell marijuana products after an initial $250 application fee. This part, Harcus argued, could allow low-income entrepreneurs decent access to licenses. 

However, that point drew fire from one lawmaker during debate. State Representative Anne Nue Brindley, R-North Branch, described creating the new state marijuana office as “a massive appropriation” and raised concern that the revenue it would bring back to the state is currently unknown. 

“This is really unusual and a very strange carve-out,” Nue Brindley said of the lack of renewal fees. “I’m not sure why we would do that.” 

Calandra Revering, a St. Louis Park-based defense attorney, spoke during public comment about her concern over a lack of access to capital for entrepreneurs of color looking to get into the hemp, CBD, and marijuana business. It’s something she said she’s experienced firsthand since researching getting into the industry herself for the past four years. 

“The model often favors people with more money, like white men, and not people like me,” Revering said. “I believe this is an opportunity for Minnesota to be a leader in approving these businesses.”

Speaking to Sahan Journal, Stephenson pointed to start-up grants in the bill that would go to social equity applicants seeking marijuana licenses as one effort that would help people in this situation. 

The bill will likely face around a dozen more committees in the House, Stephenson said, where it would have to be approved before reaching a full House vote. The same is likely to happen in the Senate, where a similar companion bill has been introduced. But Stephenson said he’s “very optimistic” it will get to the governor’s desk this year. 

“I’m having great conversations with other members, and I’m hoping that we’ll get it done,” he said. 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...