Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Minnesota lawmakers ought to harness the research power of the University of Minnesota's renowned School of Public Health as the push to legalize adult-use marijuana gathers steam at the State Capitol.
Multiple committee stops still stand between the legislation (HF 100/SF 73) and the floor votes needed to clear the House and Senate. That's fortunate because there's still time to strengthen the legislation by using a percentage of cannabis sales tax revenue to provide ongoing funds for a research center studying legalization's impact.
Identifying those consequences is the responsible course of action. It's surprising that a proposal like this has not yet surfaced in the energetic debate over recreational marijuana this session.
Stigma and government prohibitions have stifled research into cannabis use for decades. More data and analysis are particularly important to understand the implications of broader use. But legalization's momentum is outpacing researchers' ability to fill that gap.
Americans' support for marijuana legalization is at a "record-high" of 68%, according to a Gallup poll released late last year. Legislators across the nation are listening. "As of Nov. 9, 2022, 21 states, two territories and the District of Columbia have enacted measures to regulate cannabis for adult nonmedical use," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Minnesota legalized edibles in 2022. Legislation moving this session would further broaden access to marijuana products for those 21 and older, set up a more robust regulatory framework and automatically expunge some low-level marijuana convictions. While passage is far from assured, the legislation has friends in high places.
Gov. Tim Walz supports legalization, as do other powerful champions at the Capitol. Among them: Rep. Zack Stephenson, a DFLer who chairs the Commerce Finance and Policy Committee and is the House bill's chief author. House Speaker Melissa Hortman is a co-author.
It's important amid this push to recognize that there's a lot to learn about marijuana's potential benefits and drawbacks. Setting up a research center that could closely track the impact and sound the alarm if necessary makes sense.
As with any reform, legalization carries the potential for unintended consequences. It's important to identify these early, particularly health impacts, and use these findings to guide future policy.
The U's School of Public Health (SPH) is a logical place to locate this specialized center. It is one of the nation's top-ranked schools of public health and has faculty with expertise in tobacco, alcohol and opioid regulatory science — work that has a direct application to cannabis policy. One SPH professor's findings played a pivotal role in federal regulators cracking down on a harmful ingredient in e-cigarettes, a product whose popularity grew rapidly as scientists worked to understand its health effects.
Some other states have set up cannabis research centers, but this is an emerging field. A Minnesota center could and should become the gold standard as it builds on SPH's strong foundation and the school's long history of collaborating with the state Department of Health to improve community health and well-being. Research also would likely bring additional grant dollars to the state.
Cannabis products would be subject to state sales tax and additional "gross receipts" tax, with the governor calling to set the latter at 15% and the House bill currently aiming for 8%. Legislators could fund the new SPH research center with a percentage of the tax dollars and should aim for roughly $15 million a year.
Contacted by an editorial writer, Stephenson said he's open to the research center idea. U officials should get a detailed proposal to him and other legislators as soon as possible.
Establishing a research center like this and ensuring ongoing funding for it should happen in tandem with legalization, not at some point afterward. Adding a measure like this to the legalization bill is the surest way to make this smart, responsible idea a reality.