Minnesota to Become 23rd State to Fully Legalize Cannabis

May 23, 2023

Minnesota is poised to become the 23rd state to legalize cannabis for adult use. The House and Senate have sent a bill to the desk of Governor Tim Walz (D), who supports cannabis reform and has made clear that he will sign it.

Lawmakers passed HF 100 by 73-57 in the House, and by a narrower margin of 34-32 in the Senate onMay 20. The bill, sponsored by Representative Zack Stephenson (D) and Senator Lindsey Port (D), was inspired by an earlier version that passed the House in 2021, written by former Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), as Marijuana Moment describes.

The final bill allows adults over 21 to purchase, gift and possess up to 2 ounces of cannabis, starting August 1. It also allows growing of up to eight cannabis plants at home.

Minnesota was actually an early leader in decriminalizing marijuana, but criminalization has continued for decades regardless.

The state estimates it will issue licenses to business owners in a regulated cannabis market within 12-18 months. Minnesota will also permit city and county-run dispensaries—which may look similar in practice to how many states own and operate liquor stores. The law will further allow both on-site consumption permits and delivery services.

The most important impact of cannabis legalization will be ending the arrests and jail time that have disrupted so many people’s lives. Back in 1976, Minnesota was actually an early leader in decriminalizing marijuana; it passed a law making possession of up to 1.5 ounces a misdemeanor, subject only to a $200 fine. But criminalization has continued for decades regardless. Possession of any higher amount is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine, and penalties are much higher still for sales charges.

In 2022, according to state data, there were over 12,200 drug arrests overall, of which nearly half—44 percent—were for cannabis. And the overwhelming majority of cannabis arrests—87 percent—were just for possession. Nearly 15 people are arrested for cannabis every single day across the state. And the racist outcomes couldn’t be clearer.

In 2022, an analysis by the Minnesota Reformer showed that white and Black residents used cannabis at similar rates in the past month—but Black residents were almost five times more likely to be arrested. These disparities were even worse in previous years, like when the ACLU looked at the data in 2020. State data don’t distinguish between criminal arrests for marijuana and citations that didn’t lead to jail time—but, as the Reformer notes, any interaction between police and civilians can be used as pretext for other searches, and risk escalating into violence.

Indigenous residents, for example, are also disproportionately targeted, and three out of four people arrested are men.

Automated expungements of criminal records are an important element of addressing the injustices of prohibition.

Assuming Gov. Walz signs the bill as promised, the state will almost immediately begin work to address the harms it has perpetrated. Starting in August, it must expunge marijuana convictions for charges that are no longer a crime automatically—meaning there’ll be no responsibility on defendants to do it for themselves.

This automation is an important element of addressing the injustices of marijuana prohibition. It’s something advocates have fought for as states around the country have legalized. Their demand to “make it automatic” reflects how difficult it can be to expunge a record yourself—if your state even allows it—because of the information, time and often money required to file a petition with the right court and follow up. All of this to remove a criminal record which leaves you open to countless forms of legal discrimination, and which your state now acknowledges you shouldn’t have received in the first place.

In Minnesota, a court will order that criminal records be sealed—prohibiting anyone from seeing them unless permitted by the court, although the records will not be destroyed. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will be responsible for identifying all people and cases eligible for sealing—and for making that happen without any application or petition from the person involved. The Bureau must notify the judicial branch and then seal records within 60 days. The judiciary and police agencies will be ordered to seal their own records, too.

The Bureau must track how many expungements it issues, and report to lawmakers. However, it has no requirement to notify people that their record was sealed, which may bring confusion for people involved.

The state will also appoint a Cannabis Expungement Board, which will review criminal records for certain higher-level marijuana convictions and determine which should be eligible for expungement. This board will be responsible for sending a letter notifying anyone whose record has been sealed in these circumstances. It can also decide to review the cases of people who are currently incarcerated, or on probation or parole for a cannabis conviction, and order the relevant court to reduce their sentence by a certain amount.

When issuing cannabis business licenses, the state will create a “Social Equity” category for people who have been arrested for marijuana and their families. Applicants will be eligible for training and business startup assistance, and will receive “points” that could favor them when applying for a license.

A rule prevents any city or town from banning cannabis businesses outright. This is a big deal—especially in a state as large as Minnesota.

Minnesota’s legalization bill additionally creates a state Division of Social Equity, which will give out grant money to “communities that experienced​ a disproportionate, negative impact from cannabis prohibition and usage.” This is intended to promote economic development, improve health outcomes, prevent violence and offer youth and family programs.

Another potentially positive aspect of the bill is a rule preventing any city or town from banning cannabis businesses outright. This is a big deal—especially in a state as large as Minnesota.

Residents of other cannabis-legal states have suffered from the lack of such a provision. In New Jersey, for example, which legalized in 2020, the law allows any city to ban cannabis businesses without even giving voters have a say. Seventy percent of cities decided to ban all cannabis businesses, creating a situation today where dispensaries are clustered in small pockets of the state.

If Minnesota had given cities this much power, the consequences could well have been worse; because of the size of the state, no local access could mean no practical legal access at all. That would encourage people to use the illicit market instead, putting themselves and sellers at risk of arrest. The requirement of a long drive to the nearest dispensary could also encourage people to purchase larger amounts of cannabis to last them longer, putting them over the legal threshold for possession.

But Minnesota will avoid creating those problems by preventing local governments from banning cannabis businesses. Cities can still control locations and business hours; they can prohibit cannabis businesses being located within 1,000 feet of a school, or 500 feet of a day care, playground or residential treatment clinic, for example.



Photograph of Sen. Lindsey Port and colleagues celebrating passage of cannabis legalization bill in the Minnesota State Capitol via Facebook.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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