Legalize pot in Minnesota? Advocate, lawmakers weigh in
Four months after a confusing piece of legislation made THC edibles legal in Minnesota, businesses and legalization advocates hope lawmakers further open the marijuana marketplace.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Maren Schroeder’s mother was one of the first Minnesotans to qualify for the state’s medical marijuana program.
Helping people like her mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, get access to medical marijuana is one of the main reasons Schoeder has spent a decade fighting to legalize marijuana.
Schroeder heads the MN is Ready Coalition , a collaboration between the marijuana legalization advocacy groups Minnesota NORML, Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation and Sensible Change Minnesota.
Heading into the 2023 legislative session, Schroeder says she’s optimistic a marijuana legalization measure may pass, expanding access to THC-based products in Minnesota. THC is short for tetrahydrocannabinols — the primary intoxicant in cannabis plants including hemp and marijuana plants.
In July 2022, a law allowing the sale of edibles and drinks containing up to 5 milligrams of hemp-derived THC per serving and 50 milligrams per package went into effect. Schroeder and her legalization compatriots hope that step is just the first toward wider legalization once the next legislative session begins.
Schroeder said she's hopeful a coalition of fields ranging from health and human services, criminal justice, consumer advocacy, business and other groups are able to successfully make their case for a new marijuana policy in 2023. That's if the state courts don't force the issue.
“The worst-case scenario is the state doing nothing,” she said. “And we could see the court legalize cannabis.”
One of Minnesota’s two medical cannabis providers has filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Health, the Office of Medical Cannabis, the state Attorney General's Office and multiple Minnesota counties including Olmsted County.
Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem said Rochester law firm Dunlap and Seeger has been brought on to respond to the suit. Attorneys at Dunlap and Seeger have not responded to requests for comment on the case.
The suit alleges that the law allowing hemp-derived THC edibles discriminates against Vireo Health of Minnesota, which distributes THC products made from marijuana. Marijuana-derived THC products are still tightly restricted. Extracting THC from hemp takes more processing than from marijuana varieties of cannabis. The law allowing THC-infused edible excludes smokable, vape and other types of products that medical marijuana producers offer.
“For the hemp-derived product, you’re basically taking CBD (cannabinoid oil) and processing the hell out of it,” Schroeder said.
Access to medicine
Minnesota’s medical program, which kicked off in 2014, had nearly 35,000 participants as of last year . In contrast, Florida, which adopted a medical marijuana program the same year, had more than half a million people enrolled last year.
“Access is still a big issue,” Schroeder said.
That’s the main reason she began advocating for legalizing marijuana, she added.
“A regulated recreational market clears up that access issue pretty quickly,” Schroeder said.
The legalization this year of edibles containing up to 5 milligrams of hemp-derived THC doesn’t help patients who want cannabis-based products and other forms of medical marijuana. It also doesn’t address reforming criminalization of cannabis and people still dealing with the legal fallout of possessing it.
“We’re in a very precarious situation where THC sales are very loosely regulated if you can even call it that,” Schroder said.
Some cities have moved to restrict THC sales. In August, liquor stores across the state that carried THC-infused beverages and other THC edibles were told by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement to stop selling such products. The Alcohol Gaming Enforcement Division argued that the new laws did not allow liquor retailers to sell THC products . Meanwhile, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association has advocated liquor stores are best equipped to sell the items.
These confusions and other ambiguities the legalization has brought has Schroeder repeating the key phrase she has been saying for a decade.
“It needs to be regulated,” she said.
When the owner of Jack’s Bottle Shop in Rochester received notice to halt sales of THC edibles and beverages, shop owner Jack Lester handed his inventory to Abe Sauer, owner of Old Abe’s Coffee Shop. Sauer said he has long advocated for legalizing marijuana and THC-infused edibles and beverages.
Sauer said the current regulations outlining retail sales under the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy are pretty clear. However, Sauer added he’s concerned a combination of the recent city ordinances and backlash could complicate things for retailers following the next legislative session.
“We fully understand that legislators are going to look at this again in the near future,” Sauer said. “We only hope that they speak with retailers first and do not react out of fear and misinformation.”
Sauer said he would support legalization of marijuana and that such a move would prompt him to expand his shop’s offerings including adding THC to some baked goods. Donut seller Drift Dough operates out of Sauer’s shop. The baking company would bring a line of THC-infused baked goods to Sauer's shop if the law changed.
“We'd be glad to do it,” Sauer said, “In fact, there is a whole culinary line of baking with THC oils. Alas, we'll have to wait.”
Last year, the Minnesota House voted 72-61 to approve a bill that would have legalized recreational cannabis use and expunged most cannabis convictions. The Senate version never made it out of the Public Safety committee for a vote.
Whether it advances this next session depends on the makeup of the two houses of the Minnesota Legislature and committee leaders there.
Rep. Liz Boldon, DFL-Rochester, a candidate for Minnesota Senate District 25B, was a member of the Minnesota House in 2021 and voted in favor of the House version. Boldon described the legislation as a “thoughtful policy” proposal. Boldon said she would support other marijuana legalization measures under specific circumstances.
“I will vote for future bills provided they are focused on racial justice and righting some of the wrongs of the past,” Boldon said, adding she would also want safeguards around marketing gummies, saying the colorful candies could appeal to children.
Republican Sen. Carla Nelson voted against the 2014 measure allowing medical marijuana but instead voted for a bill to study marijuana. Nelson did not respond to requests via phone and email for comments for this article.
DFL candidate Aleta Borrud, who is challenging Nelson for the Senate District 24 seat, said she is in favor of marijuana legalization under strict regulation and potency testing. Borrud said the current legislation allowing the sale of THC edibles does not provide the state’s Board of Pharmacy the funding necessary for testing and regulation of THC.
“As more states legalize cannabis for recreational use, we will see more products brought into Minnesota purchased elsewhere,” Borrud said.
Marijuana growers are developing strains with higher THC and users need to be fully informed about the potency of products containing those strains, Borrud added.
Ken Navitsky, Republican candidate for Minnesota Senate District 25B, said he would also support legislation legalizing marijuana under certain circumstances including rigorous testing.
“It would probably be a good revenue stream if it was regulated,” Navitsky said. Testing THC potency would also ensure marijuana sold legally wouldn’t be tainted with other drugs such as fentanyl.
Navitsky added that his support would also be contingent on rapid testing of THC for people suspected of driving or operating machinery while under the influence of marijuana.
“My biggest concern right now is, what is the legal limit?” he said. “How do we test for that?”
Obstacles to enforcement
Although there isn’t a rapid test similar to blood alcohol breathalyzer to test for THC, Sgt. Troy Christianson of the Minnesota State Patrol said troopers are trained to recognize impairment and have 30 trained drug recognition experts at their disposal in the district in Southern Minnesota.
Christianson added that’s still not enough to have an expert respond to every incident in which a driver is suspected of driving under the influence of drugs.
While Christianson said it was too early to know what effect, if any, legalization of THC edibles has had on public safety on the state’s roadways, he said drugged driving incidents were already climbing statewide. Public safety officials documented 15,133 drugged driving incidents from 2017 to 2021, which is more than double the four-year span from 2012 to 2016 in which 6,769 drug-related driving incidents were recorded. Those incidents include both legal and illegal drugs, he added.
Amanda Grayson, Rochester Police Department Crime Prevention & Communications Coordinator, said not having a portable test hasn’t been an obstacle for city police officers in making impaired driving arrests. Grayson said there’s no way for officers to distinguish between hemp-derived and marijuana-derived edibles. However, THC edibles aren’t a major concern compared to fentanyl, she added. Fentanyl overdose deaths in the city are double in 2022 what they were in 2021 with 15 deaths through September.
"Fentanyl continues to be a greater public safety concern in our community," she said.