Supporters celebrate as the Senate passes its version of the adult-use marijuana bill at the Minnesota State Capitol on Friday, April 28, 2023. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

A crowd of spectators erupted in cheers Friday after the Minnesota Senate narrowly voted to legalize recreational marijuana, moving the effort the closest it has come to becoming law in Minnesota after years of failed attempts.

The Senate passed the measure on a 34-33 vote, with all Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans opposed. The vote follows a similar passage from the state House of Representatives Tuesday, where one Republican lawmaker joined the entire Democratic membership in voting in favor of legalization. 

The bill’s passage marks a milestone in the effort to end decades of prohibition against the drug in Minnesota. Previous efforts to legalize marijuana in the state have failed.

“I’m ecstatic. I’ve been fighting for this for over a decade,” said Michael Ford, executive director of Minnesota NORML, which advocates for marijuana legalization. “It’s a great day today to see that something did pass this year and that we can keep pushing forward from here.”

Lawmakers from both chambers will now have to reconcile differences between their bills and vote on a single bill before it is sent to Governor Tim Walz to be signed into law. Walz has vowed to sign a bill if it reaches his desk. Lawmakers have until May 22 to approve a bill before the current legislative session ends. 

Leili Fatehi, the campaign manager for MN is Ready, an organization advocating for legal cannabis, reacts to the Senate’s vote to legalize recreational marijuana on April 28, 2023. Credit: Joey Peters | Sahan Journal

Both Senate and House bills include the automatic expungement of petty misdemeanor marijuana convictions. Marijuana felonies would be considered for expungement on a case-by-case basis. During Friday’s debate, multiple DFL senators cited the expungement provisions as examples of the bill’s focus on equity. 

Senator Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, spoke about her Black male friend who she said was incarcerated and had trouble finding work and housing after receiving a felony marijuana conviction. Verbeten cited state data showing that Black Minnesotans are five times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense than white Minnesotans, despite evidence that both populations consume marijuana at similar rates. 

“This is a racial justice issue,” Verbeten said. “It’s really a step in the right direction to rebuild the damage that has been done by prohibition.” 

“For some of us, it’s about righting the wrongs that have been done to Minnesotans,” added Senator Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis.

Senator Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, introduced the bill on the Senate floor shortly before noon. Port is the chief sponsor of the Senate’s bill.

“The prohibition of cannabis is a failed system that hasn’t achieved the desired goals, and has had incredible cost to our communities, especially communities of color,” Port said as she introduced the bill. “We have the opportunity today to vote green to undo some of the harm that has been done and create a unique system of regulation that works for Minnesota consumers and businesses while ensuring opportunities in the new market for communities that have been most affected by prohibition.”

Although many Republican senators heavily criticized the idea of legalizing marijuana, some spoke in favor of the expungement provisions. Senator Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, got personal as he explained that he was adopted and that his biological father, a Hispanic man, did time in prison for drug-related offenses. 

“I know what it’s like to be a little kid, to get a letter from a loved one in prison because of drug-related charges,” Duckworth said. “And he wasn’t the only relative in prison because of drug-related charges.”

But Duckworth argued that the prospect of legalizing marijuana would go too far in harming the community.

“The desire to legalize cannabis doesn’t outweigh the safety of our kids, does not trump our duty to public safety, and does not justify adding to the mental health crisis of our state,” he said.

Similarly, Senator Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said he was open to the idea of expunging low-level offenses, but not legalizing marijuana. 

But equity measures in the bill didn’t completely escape criticism from opponents of legalization. Both bills contain provisions that would make entrepreneurs from low-income zip codes eligible for state grants, and would ease their ability to obtain marijuana business licenses. Advocates say these measures are an effort to give people of color more equitable opportunities to participate in the industry after historically bearing the brunt of marijuana criminalization.

But one lawmaker said such measures would only perpetuate harm on those very communities.

“This bill has grants to put [marijuana] in low-income communities,” said Senator Steve Green, R-Fosston. “That in itself is racist.”

Marijuana stakeholders said they’re eagerly following how the bill will change in conference committee before it can become law. Clemon Dabney, who makes hemp-based THC products for Uniflora Holistics, said he’s concerned that some parts of the bill are not equitable. For example, he cites how the House bill limits the legal possession of marijuana to 1.5 pounds and the Senate bill limits legal possession to five pounds. 

Both bills allow individuals to grow no more than four “mature” cannabis plants in their home for personal use. Dabney, who supports a five pound limit, said homegrowers could run into trouble under a 1.5-pound limit. 

“If you’re a half-decent grower, you can get at least a pound a plant,” Dabney said. 

Leili Fatehi, the campaign manager for MN is Ready, an organization advocating for legal cannabis, celebrated the vote Friday. But, she said, more work must be done in conference committee to ensure that the final legislation provides business opportunities for communities that have been disproportionately affected by the criminalization of marijuana, among other issues that need to be resolved.

“We are so excited,” Fatehi said. “We have known that Minnesotans are ready for cannabis legalization for several years. It has been the Senate that has not been ready, and today they were.”

The Senate bill was heavily influenced by the community, she added, which should translate to more opportunities for local entrepreneurs.

“This bill was written by stakeholders—Minnesota stakeholders from the bottom up—so, it has been written with great attention to creating a Minnesota-first industry, one that prioritizes smaller craft Minnesota businesses, businesses that are owned by communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition,” Fatehi said.

Fatehi said some issues she would like to see ironed out in conference committee include increasing possession limits to reduce the chances of criminalizing people and lowering tax rates for business owners. She also wants to address licensing issues so that communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana laws can partake in the legal market.

Both Port and Representative Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, the lead sponsor of the House marijuana bill, have vowed for an open process to reconcile the differences between the bills over the next month. Conference committees typically occur behind closed doors, but Port told Sahan Journal earlier this month that she favors holding the conference committee meetings publicly and allowing public comment. 

“We do not intend to have a closed-door conference committee where Zack and I sort of agree to everything and then have a 15-minute conference committee where we just adopt everything,” Port told Sahan Journal in early April. “This will be one of the most closely watched conference committees in a while, so we are intending to make it as transparent as possible.”

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...