The Minnesota Senate cast its first vote to legalize recreational marijuana Friday, pushing the proposal closer to becoming law than ever before.
Senators passed the DFL-led marijuana bill on a 34-33 vote, with all Democrats voting for it and all Republicans opposed. The House approved its marijuana bill Tuesday. The bills now head to a conference committee where their differences must be reconciled in a final version.
"Minnesotans are ready. Attitudes are changing. Now is our time to undo decades of ineffective and damaging prohibition," said Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, who sponsored the marijuana bill and wore a bright green suit to commemorate Friday's vote.
Republicans argued that legalizing marijuana will do more harm than good, leading to worse rates of addiction and traffic fatalities.
"This bill simply isn't enough. Not enough for public safety, not enough for public health, and our local governments are really, really at the bad end of the stick of this," said Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks.
DFL Gov. Tim Walz has said he will sign a marijuana bill if it reaches his desk. Once the two bills are merged, the House and Senate will hold final votes on the compromise version.
Both bills would allow Minnesotans 21 and older to buy up to 2 ounces of cannabis flower, 8 grams of concentrate and 800 milligrams worth of edible products at one time. Adults could also grow up to eight cannabis plants at home.
Differences to be worked out include issues around at-home marijuana possession and the tax rate for marijuana products.
Under the Senate bill, Minnesotans who grow their own marijuana could possess up to 5 pounds of consumable flower in their homes, while those who acquire their marijuana elsewhere could possess no more than 2 pounds.
The House bill sets a private possession limit of 1½ pounds across the board.
Senate Democrats are also proposing a higher tax of 10% on cannabis products, while the House bill would enact an 8% gross receipts tax over the next four years.
The Senate bill would allow cities to cap the number of dispensaries within their limits; the House version would not.
Freshman Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, successfully offered amendments Friday granting more money to law enforcement for drug recognition training and letting cities impose an even tighter cap on the number of marijuana businesses within their limits.
Hauschild pitched another amendment that would have increased the proposed tax on cannabis products from 10% to 12%, and then bumped up that rate by 1% each year starting in 2028 until it reached 20%. That amendment failed, with both Democrats and some Republicans expressing concern that a higher tax could keep the black market alive.
"If the state of Minnesota approaches this and makes it so expensive and so costly and adds so much tax to it, then we might have the unintended consequence of exacerbating that illicit market even more, which we know is not going to go away entirely," said Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville.
DFL Sen. John Hoffman of Champlin successfully amended the bill to increase funding for addiction prevention, treatment and recovery.
Republican senators said the marijuana bill isn't ready for passage. They said more resources are needed to address negative impacts on public health and highway safety, and cities need more regulatory controls.
"We don't have a reliable road test — that is key — for driving under the influence of cannabis," Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said during a Friday news conference. "Our law enforcement are against this bill."
Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, said legalizing marijuana is a "racial justice issue" for people with cannabis-related convictions on their records. Expunging those Minnesotans' convictions, she said, would make a "world of difference" for them.
The bill would automatically expunge misdemeanor marijuana convictions and form a committee to consider expungement of felony-level cannabis crimes.
"People should know that these convictions have a long, lingering effect on people's lives," Verbeten said. "This is what this bill is about. It's about righting those past wrongs."
Speaking to reporters after the Senate vote, Port said the automatic expungements would begin immediately if the bill is signed by Walz. And marijuana possession and home-growing would become legal this summer, she said.
However, she said it would take between 12-16 months for the state to set up the legal commercial market.