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Minnesota legalizes recreational marijuana, but federal laws against cannabis still apply

Those seeking a job with a federal contractors and most federal agencies will be rejected if they say they have used marijuana. Those applying for help with housing, if it involves federal funding, will also continue to be asked about their drug use.

Rolling a joint
Some jobs in Minnesota, including those for truck drivers, emergency management technicians and operators of heavy construction equipment, will continue to be off limits to those who use marijuana because of federal requirements.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

WASHINGTON — Recreational use of marijuana may be legal in Minnesota soon, but those who use the drug will continue to face a hard time getting some types of jobs, buying a gun or living in federally subsidized housing.

Why? Because marijuana use, even when prescribed by a doctor for medicinal use, is still considered unlawful under federal law.

Some jobs in Minnesota, including those for truck drivers, emergency management technicians and operators of heavy construction equipment, will continue to be off limits to those who use marijuana because of federal requirements. (In its law legalizing cannabis Minnesota also put its use off limits to police, firefighters and others, including those interacting with children and vulnerable adults.)

Those seeking a job with a federal contractors and most federal agencies in the state will be rejected if they say on their job applications that they have used marijuana, especially if that drug use is recent and/or ongoing. Some federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation and the Defense Department, test applicants for drug use.

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Those applying for help with housing, if it involves federal funding, will also continue to be asked about their drug use. The Minnesota Public Housing Authority said it follows U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidance that does not allow marijuana use – even medical marijuana – in any federally assisted public housing project. Applicants for that housing, and for housing vouchers that help many low-income people, will be rejected if they say they use cannabis.

The day after Gov. Tim Walz signed the law allowing recreational marijuana use in the state, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco field office in St. Paul warned that marijuana users are prohibited from possessing, receiving, transporting or shipping firearms or ammunition.

“Until marijuana is legalized federally, firearms owners and possessors should be mindful that it remains federally illegal to mix marijuana with firearms and ammunition,” Jeff Reed, ATF’s acting special agent in charge of the St. Paul Field Division, said in a statement.

Because the state has legalized recreational cannabis use, as of Aug. 1 Minnesotans who are at least 21 years old will be able to carry up to two ounces of marijuana and possess two pounds of marijuana at home.

In fact, now 23 states have legalized recreational marijuana use and 38 states allow medical marijuana. But the federal government has been stubbornly resistant to removing cannabis from the list of “Schedule 1” drugs, that along with peyote, heroin and LSD, are considered “high abuse drugs” and outlawed.

So, under federal law, someone selling or even using cannabis on federal property – including national parks and military bases – can face hefty fines and even jail time. And because colleges and universities in the state receive federal funds and are therefore required to establish policies that clearly prohibit “the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of alcohol and illicit drugs,” these schools are likely to prohibit the use of marijuana on campus.

The University of Minnesota, like many employers in the state, is grappling with the state’s legalization of marijuana. In a recent notice to faculty and staff, the university said “while the new law may begin to shift societal norms outside the workplace,” university employees are still expected to follow the school’s “drug-free policies,” which required employees to “act according to the highest ethical and professional standards of conduct” and “be personally accountable for individual actions.”

“Additionally, while the new law allows for the growing of cannabis plants at home, no such plants grown for personal use are allowed on any University property nor should such plants be visible on camera during remote work,” the university’s notice said.

The federal government has made marijuana use illegal since 1937. Federal enforcement of the law has sometimes been strict, and sometimes been more lenient, depending on who controlled the White House. For instance, President Biden recently provided federal pardons to individuals with federal marijuana convictions.

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But there has always been a resistance in Congress to legalizing cannabis, coming mainly from the GOP side of the aisle. According to pollster FiveThirtyEight, GOP politicians often oppose drug legalization on behalf of conservative principles like morality, order and family values, even as polls show clear majorities of Republican voters favoring legalization.

Last year, when the U.S. House was in Democratic hands, the chamber passed laws that would have taken cannabis off the Schedule 1 list and decriminalized the use and possession of marijuana. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, says enforcing cannabis restrictions cost taxpayers at least $3.6 billion a year. It also says marijuana arrests disproportionately impact people of color, who are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their white counterparts, despite equal rates of use across population.

The effort to legalize marijuana on the federal level was supported by all of Minnesota’s Democratic lawmakers and opposed by all of the state’s Republican House members.

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-3rd District, a member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said “laws prohibiting recreational marijuana use defy both common sense and the will of the people.”

“As elected officials, it is our collective responsibility to listen to our constituents, especially when there is such broad agreement on the need to act,” Phillips said. “It’s time to de-schedule cannabis, allow states to control it as they see fit, and ensure responsibly operated enterprises and their employees are treated the same as any American business.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th District, pointed out that the MORE Act also would provide $3 billion to provide job training, reentry services and legal aid “to people harmed by failed drug policies.”

“Proud to vote yes today,” she tweeted after one of the votes on the bill last year.

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However, although it passed the House as a standalone bill and as part of broader legislation several times last year, the MORE Act and other bills aimed at decriminalizing cannabis never made it through the Senate. Now, with the House in GOP hands, federal legalization of marijuana is out of reach, at least for the time being.

‘A cash-intensive business’

There are estimates that legal cannabis sales totaled about $20 billion in 2020 and are projected to reach more than $40 billion by 2025.

While it looks like a very healthy growth industry, federal prohibitions on the use, sale and growth of marijuana are huge for those in the business. Those who grow marijuana are barred from any help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and those who want to open dispensaries or distribution networks cannot apply for U.S. Small Business Administration loans. Nor can a marijuana business take standard business deductions on their federal taxes.

And Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said banks are concerned that marijuana businesses could be accused of money laundering or drug laundering under federal law.

“They are not going to go to the bank and be able to get a loan,” Armentano said.

The problems between the industry and the banks means that most dispensaries are cash-only enterprises and that much of the business depends on “non-traditional” financing, such as venture capitalists, Armentano said.

“This is a very cash-intensive business,” Armentano said.

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Like efforts at decriminalization, attempts to tweak federal banking regulations have been unsuccessful in Congress. The Senate has a bill, the SAFE Banking Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both Minnesota Democrats – as well as 38 other Democratic and Republican senators – that would normalize relations between state-licensed cannabis businesses and financial institutions.

But the bill has not drawn enough support to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

Smith has also introduced legislation to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level that did not move in the Senate.

“Minnesota is legalizing cannabis – but that’s not where this movement ends,” the senator recently tweeted. “Our country’s failed prohibition on cannabis and the War on Drugs’ racist legacy still has devastating consequences in Black and brown communities nationwide. We need to legalize marijuana federally.”