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Minnesota House approves recreational marijuana bill

Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 12:05 PM CDT
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ST. PAUL (WCCO) - The Minnesota House on Thursday night approved a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana in the state, a historic vote for an effort some have been pushing for decades.

“This bill is a long time coming,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “Minnesotans have decided that it is time to legalize cannabis and right the wrongs of the criminal prohibition of cannabis that has failed Minnesota.”

The bill’s passage on a 72-61 vote — with some Republican support and a few DFL defectors — is the farthest the proposal has ever traveled through the Minnesota legislature, and it follows a dozen capitol committee hearings, community meetings across the state and consultation with state agencies.

But the proposal comes to a sharp halt at the Minnesota Senate, where the GOP in control won’t take it up. Nevertheless, Democrats say that vetting and growing public support shows Minnesota is ready to take that step.

“These thoughtful efforts will result in probably the most carefully considered cannabis bill in the country,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “It’s responsible and it’s time for us to end prohibition.”

Supporters believe legalization will further bend the arc towards racial justice and equity, since Black Minnesotans are disproportionately impacted by the state’s current laws banning marijuana use except for certain approved medical conditions.  Black people in the state are five times more likely than white Minnesotans to be arrested for marijuana, according to an ACLU report.

The 250-page bill would legalize marijuana for Minnesotans 21 and older, expunge low-level cannabis convictions, establish an expungement board to review more serious offenses involving cannabis, and provide grants and loans for small businesses trying to tap into the newly-legal industry. The language allows individuals to have up to ten pounds of cannabis in their homes and up to two ounces in a public place.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said the bill is “up in smoke” in the Senate and won’t advance, but he expressed openness to lowering criminal penalties and supports expanding medical uses for it.

“Making legalized pot for fun — we just don’t think that’s a good idea,” Gazelka said.

The vote comes in the final days of session at a time when Republicans and Democrats in both chambers have not agreed to budget targets for state spending over the next two years. Lawmakers are unlikely to finish on time Monday.

This drew the ire of Republicans who said that the hours-long debate in the House Thursday night amounts to a waste of time.

They condemned Democrats for taking this up sooner than a bill to forgive state taxes on Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses and extra federal unemployment benefits Minnesotans received last year.

“With just a few days left in session, here we are wasting our time on this marijuana bill that has no chance of becoming law,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

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