Minnesota Faces Several Cannabis Questions

A cannabis bud

Ryland Zweifel/Adobe

There are many unknowns about the law the Minnesota Legislature is expected to pass this May legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. How will it affect the state’s economy? What’s in store for regulation? How might it alter social services and the health of users? Amid myriad questions, there is one known fact: Legalizing weed is a big deal.

Seven years after Minnesota legalized medical marijuana, this new law for recreational use will decriminalize marijuana offenses and allow Minnesotans aged 21 and older to possess up to 1.5 pounds of cannabis in their homes, as well as to purchase up to 2 ounces on the retail market. These amounts and other aspects of the bill continue to change as the bill makes it way through the state lawmaking process.

Minnesota is not the first state to consider the action, nor will it be the last. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996. Since then, 38 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of cannabis. If the measure passes, Minnesota would become the 22nd state to legalize recreational marijuana, along with the District of Columbia, after Colorado and Washington first approved ballot initiatives in 2012 to allow the use of cannabis for nonmedical purposes.

The majority of Americans appear to support these changes. In a 2020 Gallup poll, 68% responded yes to the question, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal?” In Minnesota, a 2022 Star Tribune survey found 53% of Minnesotans supported legalization of recreational cannabis, 36% opposed it, and 11% remained undecided. So, why now? “This is something Minnesotans are asking us to do,” says Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, who authored the house bill. “Other states are doing it.”

But just because other states have made the move, should Minnesota follow? That’s where the debate comes in. After alcohol and nicotine, marijuana is the most popular drug in the nation. About 52.5 million Americans—almost 19% of the population ages 12 and older—reported using cannabis in some form in the past 12 months, according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Marijuana is already available in Minnesota on the illicit market as well as in limited quantities in edibles and THC-infused beverages because of a new law effective last July. Supporters say full legalization will allow regulation—which will make cannabis and its products safer—overseen by the Office of Cannabis Management, a new state agency. Former Gov. Jesse Ventura has offered to head up the agency, testifying earlier this spring about his wife’s marijuana use for pain relief.

Only 11 years into the national experiment on the legalization of recreational cannabis, the American Medical Association, in a position echoed by the American Psychiatric Association, continues to urge Americans to proceed cautiously. As this bill looks likely to become law soon, Minnesotans may want to understand both sides of the issue. Here is a look at some major talking points:

ECONOMIC IMPACT

To start, marijuana is a lucrative product. The state bill requires all marijuana sold here to be grown in state, and provisions would limit the size of vertically integrated companies—those that grow, manufacture, and sell cannabis. This is meant to create a “craft industry” benefiting smaller businesses with at least 75% Minnesota ownership, in an effort to keep out large national companies.

Just how lucrative could the state’s marijuana market become? GreenGrowth, a national accounting firm that tracks the marijuana industry, estimates that in Minnesota, overall cannabis sales (including medical marijuana) could reach $1.5 billion by 2025. While the firm does not offer how it arrived at that figure, advocates and detractors agree recreational marijuana will result in new businesses, create jobs, and boost the state’s economic output.

In states that have already legalized recreational marijuana use, two (Massachusetts, Nevada) saw increases in employment afterward; four (Alaska, Illinois, Maine, Vermont) saw a decrease in employment; and four (California, Colorado, Michigan, Washington) followed existing employment trends, according to a 2020 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The bill will create a local supply chain so Minnesota businesses can benefit, but also so they can be monitored. Because cannabis is illegal on the federal level, it cannot be transported legally across state lines—say, grown in Wisconsin and sold in Minnesota. Thus, the benefit to Minnesota businesses would be equal to the demand because they would grow, manufacture, and sell 100% of the cannabis product licensed for sale in our state. The economic benefits, Stephenson says, are “immense.”

“The extensive and thoughtful approach that Minensota is taking to legalizing cannabis will give an opportunity for small Minnesota businesses to thrive,” says Josh Wilken-Simon, an advisory board member with the pro-legalization coalition MN is Ready.

SOCIAL JUSTICE

Some supporters of the bill also see legalization of recreational cannabis as an attempt to right some wrongs of the past. “There will be opportunities for entrepreneurs, especially those from communities of color who’ve been disproportionately impacted by prohibition,” says Leili Fatehi, a political and policy strategist with Blunt Strategies, a Minnesota-based consultancy founded in 2019 for the cannabis industry.

To that end, a strong selling point for advocates of legalization has been to frame decriminalizing marijuana as an act of social justice.

At a committee hearing, Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, testified that Blacks and whites in Minnesota consume cannabis at very similar rates, while Black Minnesotans are nearly five times as likely to be arrested for possessing cannabis. The new law would automatically seal the records of low-level marijuana convictions of about 60,000 Minnesotans and create a special board to review marijuana-related felonies, which could reduce sentences served for those crimes.

“Legalization is a way to address some of the racial inequities we have in our criminal justice system,” says Stephenson, who also works as a Hennepin County prosecutor. “We had over 6,000 cannabis arrests in Minnesota in 2021. The overwhelming majority of those people are not going to prison, but it’s still a big deal to be arrested. And so if that’s disproportionately Black people getting arrested—which it is—that’s a really big problem.”

CANNABIS USE

Another talking point concerns whether cannabis use is safe in general—enough to legalize it. That depends on how often people use weed, how much they use, and in what forms. While rankings of the harm caused by drugs (to users and to others) have not yielded consensus among experts, they have generally placed cannabis lower than alcohol and tobacco, which are both legal. A 2020 German study rated cannabis in the “midrange” of harmful addictive substances, with alcohol among the most harmful.

But use of marijuana in any form has risen dramatically among people 21 and older in states that have legalized it recreationally. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the incidence of use increased from 13.1% to 21.9% the first two years after legalization in Nevada, and from 19.4% to 27.5% over the first four years in Oregon.

One risk is marijuana dependence: A paper published by JAMA Psychiatry in 2015 reported that nearly 30% of those who use marijuana develop cannabis use disorder. If someone starts using before age 18, they are four to seven times more likely than adults to become hooked, according to a study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence. (See sidebar for information on how cannabis may affect young brains.)

Today’s weed is also much more powerful than grass from the past, which raises the risk of dependence. A 2015 study published in Psychological Medicine found that people who used high-potency cannabis were seven times more likely to become addicted than those who used less potent varieties. Meanwhile, the amount of Tetrahydrocannabinol—or THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana—has increased steadily over the past few decades.

In the early ’90s, the average THC content in street weed was about 4%. That more than tripled to 15% by 2018. Products sold in dispensaries are even higher. One study published in 2020 of cannabis products sold by online dispensaries found an average THC concentration of 22%. Concentrated products, known as dabs or waxes, have levels as high as 75.9%, according to a 2019 report from the U.S. Surgeon General. Alongside that report, the Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, issued an unprecedented warning, stating, “Higher doses of THC increase the risks of physical dependence and addiction and are more likely to lead to anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis.”

That’s where supporters of the bill say regulating recreational marijuana can help control potency levels and monitor abuse. “One of the benefits is creating a safe marketplace for responsible adults to use cannabis,” says Fatehi, part of the Blunt Strategies cannabis consultancy in Minnesota. “We will be able to better control the product and its quality.”

Opponents concerned about high-potency weed and cannabis products (which contain at least 10% THC) have asked for the regulation to include limits on THC levels in products sold in Minnesota. Other than a limit of 5 mg or less in THC edibles, the bill does not provide restrictions on the amount of THC in the flower or concentrates that licensed dispensaries will sell. It does, however, allow for the new Office of Cannabis Management to establish limits if it considers them necessary.

Not all are convinced. “How can we create a large new agency to oversee regulation without knowing the additional costs this will have on Minnesotans?” Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, asked in a public statement. “As this legislation advances, I hope to see the folks carrying this bill back up a little and see the flaws.”

REGULATION AND SAFETY

As noted earlier, there’s a lot of money to be made selling recreational weed. That financial motive could undercut some of the good intentions in the state’s bill if not adequatley addressed. “The industry has the motive to create a product that is more fun and more addictive, because then they have repeat customers,” says Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. “This is not an evil product, but there are ways this product can be made more harmful. The industry has demonstrated they’re willing to do so, so you have to put checks on them.”

As one safeguard, Stephenson says the new law will make it illegal to market products to youngsters. It also requires edibles to be moved behind the counter, to make them less visible and less easily swiped. The bill also requires annual compliance checks to make sure dispensaries are not selling cannabis products to underage clientele.

But opponents worry that the Minnesota bill does not provide sufficient checks to address concerns. “You have to test and enforce the heck out of it,” says Kim Bemis, chair of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Minnesota, an organization against the commercialization and normalization of recreational marijuana use. “There’s just not enough money in this bill to do it. Once-a-year [inspections] is not enough.”

Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, is a physician at Mayo Clinic who was initially opposed to the Minnesota bill because of the impact of cannabis use on young people’s brains. Now, he supports the bill, saying it would be safer if regulated. “We need to establish a system that is safe and reliable and trustworthy,” he says. “Everybody agrees we need to get the regulation right. Otherwise, we will have botched this thing.”

YOUNG BRAINS A MAJOR CONCERN FOR OPPONENTS

Of particular concern to opponents of the bill is how marijuana affects youth, especially before the brain is fully developed around the age of 25.

Consequently, the Minnesota Medical Association and the Mental Health Legislative Network, which includes the Allina and Children’s Minnesota health systems, appealed to legislators to raise the minimum age in the bill from 21 to 25. That change was rejected. “If someone is old enough to go to war and own a gun, they should also be old enough to use mind-altering substances,” says Maren Schroeder, director of Minnesota is Ready, a coalition lobbying for legalization.

A 2017 study on adolescent cannabis use found adverse effects on executive functioning and intelligence quotient. A 2017 review noted deficits in attention and memory among teenagers who use marijuana even after a month of discontinuing use. In one study that tracked a group of more than 1,000 individuals from birth to age 38, researchers found those who developed cannabis use disorder lost on average up to six IQ points, while those who used most heavily before age 18 averaged an eight-point drop. At the University of Minnesota, researchers who compared 364 sets of identical twins in 2021 found those who used marijuana had lower grades and were less likely to attend college than their genetic counterparts who abstained.

Cannabis use by youth can also lead to psychosis. The results of a study in Europe published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal in 2019 showed those who used high-potency cannabis (of at least 10% THC) daily were nearly five times more likely to develop psychosis as those who had never used. The researchers concluded that the risk for early onset of psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, increases with potency, frequency of use, and the earlier the age of first use.

All of which can lead to death. Those who start using cannabis daily before age 17 are more likely to attempt suicide, according to an integrative analysis published in the Lancet in 2014. In January, Heather Bacchus, a 52-year-old real estate agent from Mahtomedi, told the Minnesota Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee about her son, Randy Jr. He started smoking marijuana at age 15, was diagnosed with cannabis use disorder at 16, moved to Colorado, a legal-use state, at 18, suffered a cannabis-induced psychosis, and in 2021, at the age of 21, committed suicide. His mother urged committee members considering the recreational marijuana bill not to pass it.

“We know that impulse control is not fully developed until 25,” Stephenson says, “but our entire society is built on the idea you can do anything you want when you’re 21—for example, get drunk, gamble, take on massive amounts of debt. I’m sorry, but cannabis is not unique.”

 

 

 

 


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