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Questioned On Equity, Minnesota Marijuana Regulator Tells Lawmakers Her Son Is Incarcerated For Drugs

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Minnesota’s top cannabis regulator gave a committee of lawmakers an update on implementation of the state’s adult-use marijuana law on Tuesday, touching on matters such as staffing up the new office and the forthcoming launch of a new business license application portal. But issues such as who would qualify for equity advantages under the plan drew ire from some Republicans on the panel.

Sen. Jordan Rasmusson (R), for example, questioned why proposed equity rules would allow people with past criminal convictions for selling marijuana to not only operate retail outlets but also receive social equity status in licensing.

“You’d think if we were trying to find a safe, regulated market,” he said, “that would be a surprising first proposal coming from the regulatory agency.”

Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) interim Director Charlene Briner responded by pointing out that she’s a parent of someone currently incarcerated on drug charges.

“I have a son who has been convicted of drug offenses and is currently incarcerated,” she told members of the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. “And while I will never defend his choices, I have to believe as a mother in second chances.”

“My hope is that as a state, we will give opportunity for second chance to people who have paid their dues and who have proven that they are reintegrated into society and have become contributing members,” Briner continued, adding that those people would “have an opportunity to reduce some of the collateral consequences that they’ve experienced.”

OCM officials have been working to provide updates in recent months on the status of Minnesota’s legal marijuana rollout and to detail changes recommended by the office. Briner has said the proposals are designed both to speed the opening of the legal market and to “strengthen the already robust social equity goals in the bill.”

“We believe that the intention of the law is very clear but that there are opportunities to make some of those social equity opportunities even more robust,” she said during an earlier presentation last month.

The proposal includes plans to begin temporary licensing of some businesses as soon as this summer, emphasizing businesses at least two-thirds controlled by those impacted most by prohibition. It’s that advantage that prompted criticism from Rasmusson at the Senate committee hearing.

The change would allow equity-owned businesses to secure licenses ahead of time, according to the presentation, “so when the market opens, they have the first availability to launch.”

Gov. Tim Walz (D) has said he supports the plan, though he said he wants the equity program to be crafted in a way that avoids legal challenges.

Rasmusson, however, said regulators should reconsider their priorities.

“I would just encourage the agency to think about the health and safety of Minnesotans,” he said at Tuesday’s hearing, “and not how we can make money for certain groups.”

For the most part, Briner’s presentation to the committee on Tuesday went smoothly. The first design phase of the state’s new licensing application system is complete, she said, and OCM has begun internal testing to better understand a user’s experience on the platform. The department has also been working with other state agencies on issues such as banking and tax collection.

There are also six appointments yet to be made to the Cannabis Advisory Council, an oversight board that Briner said is aiming to have its inaugural meeting in the first quarter of this year.

She also outline efforts OCM has made to solicit public feedback, such as by launching a series of public surveys on topics like retail business operations, packaging and labeling, edibles standards and the state’s medical marijuana system.

Hundreds of people have replied to each of seven separate surveys put out by the department. The most recent—on medical cannabis—has received the most submissions, with more than 4,400 so far.

Additionally, officials have hosted public webinars and met with legislative bodies and outside stakeholders to gather feedback on the legal market’s rollout.

“This is novel work in state government. It is rare to build an agency from the ground up,” Briner said. “We are creating new positions and creating new standard operating procedures, and so we want to make sure that we are being intentional about it—to both capture the intended outcomes that are very clear in the law, not the least of which is our social equity outcomes that we hope to achieve, but also to establish sound regulatory practices for the long term.”

Of everything OCM has been engaged with, rulemaking “is perhaps of the most interest,” she acknowledged.

Drafting of rules is expected to stretch into this summer, with a notice of intent to publish proposed rules likely coming in the fall. At that point there will be a public comment period and regulators may make revisions to the proposed rules. The governor also has an option to veto the rules.

Ultimately, final rules won’t be decided until early 2025.

A number of Republican lawmakers have taken aim at the new system, however. In addition to Rasmusson and others’ criticisms on Tuesday, another pair of GOP lawmakers recently warned that cannabis cultivation could put a strain on the state’s electrical system.

“Get ready for blackouts and brownouts. That’s what’s going to happen,” said Sen. Eric Lucero (R), who called growing the plant “unsustainable.”

Legalization itself has been broadly opposed by Republican politicians. When the legislature passed the legislation last year, just five Republican House members and one GOP senator voted for the legislation.

Sen. John Jasinski (R) last year spoke out against legalization, saying it would lead to early retirement for drug-sniffing dogs.

Elsewhere in Minnesota party politics, Democrats recently asked the state Supreme Court to decertify the Legal Marijuana Now Party as a major political party. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party says the pro-marijuana party has failed to comply with state election laws.

Ahead of the planned launch of legal sales next year, the city of Osseo is considering whether to open the state’s first municipally run marijuana retailer—a move leaders say would provide more local control over the look, feel and operations of the store.

A city report published last month said officials are currently waiting on the state’s Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) to hire a new director and proceed with opening license applications. If all goes as planned, products would likely be available April 2025, it said.

Minnesota’s cannabis law has already allowed tribes within the state to open marijuana businesses before the state begins licensing traditional retailers, and some tribal governments—including the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, the White Earth Nation and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe—have already entered the legal market.

But after a controversy in which a Red Lake Nation Tribal Council member was accused stealing from the store, NativeCare, the tribal government reportedly has pressed pause on cannabis operations.

Adults 21 and older in Minnesota can already legally use, possess and grow marijuana for personal use. In August, the governor clarified that homegrown cannabis cannot be sold commercially.

Following legalization, minor violations of possession or home cultivation limits can result in petty misdemeanors, charges some advocates have said should include state-provided legal representation.

Even before Walz signed the reform bill, the state launched a website that serves as a hub for information about the new law. Officials have also already started soliciting vendors to help build a licensing system for recreational marijuana businesses.

Walz has also renewed his search for a top marijuana regulator to lead OCM. In September, the office’s former head, Erin DuPree, a cannabis industry consultant, stepped down after one day of work following a Star Tribune report that her hemp shop allegedly sold illegal products. Lab results reportedly showed elevated THC levels and the presence of banned synthetic ingredients.

Also in September, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the odor of marijuana, on its own, does not establish probable cause for police officers to search a vehicle.

Aside from OCM, another body created by Minnesota’s marijuana law is the Cannabis Expungement Board, which will facilitate record sealing for people with eligible marijuana convictions on their records. The review process for eligible cases began in August. In the meantime, officials recently added a new notice to cannabis criminal history records, essentially letting reviewers know that certain marijuana records that appear on records checks may be pending expungement.


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