The most frustrating job around the Minnesota State Capitol is being performed by those opposing — or at least trying to slow down — the drive in both the House and Senate to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana.
And they’re losing. After 18 committee appearances in the House, House File 100 has been cleared for action on the floor on Monday. Senate File 73 has been before 12 committees and is nearing its floor vote Friday.
At each committee stop, a small group of people representing themselves or organizations like the trucking industry, traffic safety watchdogs, law enforcement, addiction advocates, and religious groups squeeze in concerns among the more-numerous supporters.
“Every guardrail they had in place didn’t work,” said Heather Bacchus after describing the cannabis-induced psychosis and suicide of her “forever 21” year-old son Randy. Bacchus testified at the first hearing on House File 100 that her son had moved to Colorado because of its recreational marijuana law. “What you are putting in place is not safe,” she said.
When testifying before the Senate Taxes Committee, Bacchus displayed a clear jar with notes inside containing the names of 40 people who have suffered from and/or died from cannabis-induced psychosis.
“Their families have asked me to be here on their behalf because they’re too ashamed, they’re too embarrassed to be here,” she said. Bacchus told the committee there will be far greater costs from legalization than the fiscal analysis for the bill predicts.
Bacchus’ testimony is usually followed by lawmakers expressing sorrow for her loss. But her request to slow down the bill, put caps on THC potency into law and increase the age of consumption from 21 to 25 have not been accepted. The bill gives the power to set potency limits to the new Office of Cannabis Management.
Sponsors acknowledge downsides to legalization. But they argue current prohibition has made the impacts of marijuana worse through black market sales, crime, tainted products and the inequitable impact of marijuana law enforcement on people of color. One of the major articles of the bills is to expunge criminal records of people convicted of many crimes that will be removed from the law books.
The bills also attempt to get those in low-income areas that faced disproportionate enforcement and sanctions a significant share of the businesses created by the bills.
Rep. Zack Stephenson, the Coon Rapids DFLer who is the prime sponsor of HF 100, begins his committee testimony with this: “Minnesotans are ready. Cannabis should not be illegal. Minnesotans deserve the freedom and respect to make responsible decisions about cannabis themselves.
“Our current laws are doing more harm than good,” Stephenson said. Both he and Sen. Lindsey Port, the DFLer from Burnsville who is the prime sponsor of SF 73, have said they think they have enough votes to pass any bill that emerges from a House-Senate conference committee later in the session. Gov. Tim Walz has promised to sign the bill.
All that makes the task before opponents daunting. Ryan Hamilton, the lobbyist for the Minnesota Catholic Conference, said it was a more lonely task in previous sessions when he was one of the few opposing previous versions. He sees the opposition now as “pretty robust” with law enforcement, medical professionals, employer groups, drug and alcohol counselors and survivors working together.
Has a larger coalition made a difference?
“Not really, to be honest,” Hamilton said. The professional lobbyist said he is used to having his testimony capped by committee chairs. But he said he thinks people like Heather Bacchus and her husband Randy should have gotten more than a couple of minutes to tell their story.
“When you have mothers and fathers and parents who have been impacted by the proliferation of high-potency marijuana, they should be given the full time to tell that story,” Hamilton said. “An issue of this magnitude, for the level of public policy change, people should have been given as much time as they needed to share their perspective.”
Kim Bemis is the co-chair of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Minnesota which subtitles its name with “preventing another big tobacco.” Bemis is in long-term recovery from cannabis-use disorder and a former counselor at the Hazelden Betty Ford treatment center. He has long been a voice against legalization and now runs an online drug and alcohol intervention program for teens and their families.
“Minnesota may think it is ready for the proposed legalization of cannabis, but we question whether it is really ready for this major push to expand access to cannabis,” Bemis said. Smart Approaches to Marijuana Minnesota was part of the coalition that earlier this month presented what it calls the Caution Act, a bill that would delay for a year the legalization aspects of the bills to provide time for a set of studies. One is a so-called baseline study, as Arizona conducted, that would measure the current presence of cannabis and the current impacts of its use. Only then, opponents say, can the state have a starting point to know the impact on legalization.
“How big is the black market? What is the prevalence of substance-abuse disorder related to marijuana? What is the prevalence of use in our high schools?” Hamilton said. “Did we curtail the black market or not? How would we know if we don’t know where we started?”
The group also wants to give state agencies time to better predict how much money and how many resources they will need for the various assignments contained in the bill.
But Hamilton said he thinks the Legislature still could move immediately on some of the criminal justice provisions in the two bills, especially expungement of criminal records for crimes that will no longer be crimes after legalization. That can happen without full legalization.
“Well-meaning Minnesotans would be appalled when they discover that while House File 100 offers redemption to those who were harmed by the war on drugs, it makes that redemption contingent upon the commercialization of a drug that wreaks havoc on the human brain,” Hamilton told the House Commerce Committee.
Their concerns about age limits and potency mostly have been rebuffed. Some changes to the bills on behalf of law enforcement and local governments have been included, though most of those groups are not totally satisfied.
Cities and counties have not received the power to opt out of retail sales of cannabis products, but their arguments for greater regulatory and enforcement powers have been heard and amendments have been added. Law enforcement officials continue to be concerned over the lack of reliable roadside testing, but their two requests for more money to develop oral fluid tests and for a greater supply of drug recognition experts has been met by sponsors. Drug recognition experts are officers trained to recognize signs of impairment who can be called to examine suspects.
Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson has testified on public safety issues before both the House and Senate but said he still thinks the bill is premature. The bills direct the development of oral fluid tests that could be used in traffic stops to be completed by July of 2025. The bills legalize cannabis in July of 2023, though supplies will likely lag that date by many months.
“So basically, we’re saying for a year and a half, law enforcement will not be ready, we won’t have the tools to operate,” Torgerson said as the group released the Caution Act. “How can we keep people safe?”
Workplace safety advocates continue to be concerned about how cannabis use can increase risks. But the bill now clarifies that employers can act on reasonable suspicion of impairment on the job. Yet pre-employment testing will be disallowed for most jobs.
One area where those tests will be allowed is in interstate commerce. But the state trucking association worries that it will have difficulty staffing its trucks. While federal rules cover operators of trucks, trains and barges and already ban any presence of THC in operators, the industry worries that legalization will send the message that it is allowed in Minnesota. But John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association, said such testimony is rejected.
“Some call opponents fear-mongers,” he said. “No, we’re truth-tellers with data and experience regarding the negative impacts that really do happen in states that legalize recreational cannabis.”
Paul Aasen is president of the Minnesota Safety Council, a privately funded nonprofit associated with the National Safety Council that works to reduce unintentional injuries. He admitted to feeling frustrated after four months of working on the two bills. But he said safety concerns have received more attention from sponsors than those with health concerns who want to stop the bill or at least raise the age of use or control potency.
“It’s not an innocuous, solely beneficial substance in terms of brain development and habit forming and all those kinds of things,” Aasen said of the health concerns. “I think that would be harder to operate than the stuff we had to deal with.”
The bill does now recognize the concerns of workplace safety. But for jobs that will no longer be subject to pre-employment testing, “it moves the burden of managing cannabis use from a pre-employment to a performance on the job issue,” Aasen said. That is, how do employers decide that impairment might be an issue and how do they respond?
Aasen said the bills now pay for public information campaigns for pregnant mothers about the health impacts of marijuana, and it fixes the lack of regulation of the hemp-derived edibles adopted last year. But it doesn’t have money to educate employers or the general public about the potential hazards.
And he said he still wishes cities and counties had the power to opt out — a line-in-the-sand issue for bill sponsors who say patchwork legalization could benefit the black market. But Aasen said critics shouldn’t be totally discouraged.
“It’s gotten better,” he said. “There is an overt recognition of issues that folks brought forward. But the question will always be, is it enough? Is it in the right places? And how will we adapt if we realize we need more interventions from the health side?”