Other’s Opinion: Keep improving state marijuana legislation

Published 6:00 pm Tuesday, May 9, 2023

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Minneapolis Star Tribune. May 2

As Minnesota House and Senate finalize a bill, state should provide for stronger local control.

Minnesota is about to embark on a new era, one in which recreational marijuana will be legal, after passage by both the House and Senate.

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If anything is clear about the protracted debate over legalization, it is that prohibition has been an abysmal failure, taking a heavy toll on a range of individuals, communities and public safety resources.

The cost has been worst for people of color. While white and Black Minnesotans consume marijuana at about the same rate, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension statistics showed that in 2022, Black people were more than four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana crimes as white people. A recent Star Tribune story noted the disparity could be even higher, since a fifth of the arrests that year did not contain race data.

Each infraction can make life forever harder, particularly when it comes to housing and good jobs. In a recent analysis, the American Civil Liberties Union ranked Minnesota as the eighth-worst state for racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

That’s why the expungement part of this legislation, while complicated, is so necessary and long overdue. Nothing can restore the years and lives lost to incarceration, especially in the early years of the war on drugs when sentences could be harsh. But once those arrests and convictions for a substance that will soon be legal in the state are removed, thousands of individuals will get a fresh start. How many? An estimated 60,000 Minnesotans have low-level cannabis offenses on their records. Those could be expunged automatically, while felony-level offenses would go for review by an expungement board.

Minnesota’s move, while realistic, is hardly groundbreaking. When Gov. Tim Walz signs the final bill, Minnesota will become the 23rd state to legalize cannabis. That means there is much to be learned from states that have gone before, both in how and how not to do it.

And despite the positive aspects of this legislation, there are some elements that Minnesotans should find concerning in the House and Senate bills.

The House bill, for instance, does not allow for local control. A new Office of Cannabis Management will determine by population how many licenses a locality should have. The license must be issued if the business proposal fits within that unit’s zoning laws. The Senate version would permit cities to control the number of licenses issued, although they would lack the ability to ban dispensaries.

As the Senate and House go into conference committee to reconcile these and other differences in the two bills, the Star Tribune Editorial Board strongly urges the conferees to consider giving communities more control over if, when, how and where such businesses can be located. Proponents of the ban say it is necessary to have sufficient legal dispensaries to stamp out the black market.

That may well be the case, and if simply issuing more licenses would ensure the end of the black market, that would be a stronger argument. But we still need to be convinced.

DFL Rep. Zack Stephenson, who shepherded the bill through the House, told an editorial writer that the primary tool for local governments would be zoning regulations, just as with many other businesses. “When I was on the Coon Rapids planning commission, there was some unhappiness with the number of self-storage and car wash businesses popping up,” he said.

Members had to tell people that “we didn’t have discretion to say there can’t be another self-storage. The question is, does it fit with land use regulations?” Stephenson acknowledged that some cities have gotten around that by passing moratoriums on certain types of businesses.

But self-storage and car washes differ from businesses selling recreational drugs, and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t. Under the legislation passed, local government can suspend but not revoke licenses for cannabis shops — the state must decide on final action. Local units are also responsible for enforcement.

Additionally, some communities will need time to get up to speed. Most states appear to have some type of opt-out program. If the demand is there, the pressure will build in communities to accept licensing.

Opponents such as Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, have also expressed concern about the gap between the legal possession of cannabis on Aug. 1 and a regulatory framework for sellers that may take a year or two to become operational.

“The black market could have a year and a half head start,” Robbins told an editorial writer. “Cannabis will be legal to possess, but there won’t be any legal place to buy it for a while.” She and others have also expressed concerns about the lack of a legal definition of impaired driving for cannabis and the sheer amount individuals are allowed to possess at home, which is 1.5 pounds in the House bill and 2 pounds in the Senate.

Stephenson said he would not rule out a numerical limit on licenses similar to the Senate bill, though “it has drawbacks.”

That may be true. There will be drawbacks to any potential solution as Minnesota prepares not only to legalize a drug that has been outlawed on the federal level since 1937 but to undertake expungement of cannabis offenses and build the massive regulatory framework for what will be a new industry in this state.

Some communities will be clamoring to be the first to issue licenses. But lawmakers should respect the will of those less eager to do so and be willing to make adjustments as needed.