Weed, Freed

7 February 2024
By Jon Spayde

Pot is legal in Minnesota, and a Carleton alum was a key player in the push to put racial equity and economic opportunity front and center.

Marijuana bill supporters in the Senate Gallery erupted with cheers after the votes were counted and the bill passed. St. Paul, Minn., April 28, 2023
Supporters celebrate the April 2023 passage of the Minnesota Senate’s adult-use marijuana bill | Photo by Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

On May 30, 2023, Governor Tim Walz signed a bill legalizing recreational marijuana in Minnesota—flanked by former governor and longtime legalization advocate Jesse Ventura and a crowd of other proponents—and Laura Monn Ginsburg ’06 stood right behind Ventura, celebrating the culmination of four years of hard work to, in her words, “change what cannabis means in Minnesota.”

For Monn Ginsburg, partner and principal in the Minneapolis-based public affairs and political consultancy Apparatus, one of the worst things cannabis prohibition has meant is a marked degree of injustice and hypocrisy. “When it comes to our marijuana laws,” she says, “there has been a very clear negative outcome for communities of color, particularly for Black men. Cannabis possession, usage, even the odor of it in a car, have been used against them in order to perpetuate mass incarceration.”

Statistics bear out her observation: A 2020 ACLU report, for example, stated that Black people were 5.4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Minnesota, despite comparable usage rates.

At the same time, she points out, she’s seen people with power and privilege, including public officials, smoke weed openly without paying a penalty. “My business partner, Leili Fatehi, and I do a lot of work in the political landscape, and we know a lot of folks who use cannabis,” she says. “And we were like, ‘Why are we not doing legalization work? Why are we not chasing this down? Why are we letting this die on the vine?’”

From a MRMR to a Roar

The issue had indeed been dying on the vine. As early as 1975, Minnesota joined a handful of states reducing penalties for possession, and it legalized medical marijuana in 2014, but efforts to get recreational weed out of the legal shadows stalled multiple times. Then, in 2018, Walz, of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), campaigned on a platform that included recreational-use legalization, and Monn Ginsburg and Fatehi began to see an opening.

“In 2018,” Monn Ginsburg says, “we finally had the will of a major-party governor on our side. He campaigned on the elements we really believed in—that prohibition was extremely pernicious and something that had to be reckoned with. I know that Jesse [Ventura] also had the will to do it, but he didn’t have any of the supporting infrastructure.”

The pair pledged to do their part to help build and strengthen that infrastructure. “We decided that the 2019 legislative session would be a good time to launch a campaign,” she says. “A campaign initially named Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, or MRMR—pronounced murmur.”

MRMR’s task was to promote leadership on the cannabis issue in the Minnesota legislature. The state doesn’t allow ballot initiatives, which were the route to legalization in most other states. So it was up to the statehouse to do the job, and that meant representatives and senators had to be won over—and pro-legalization lawmakers elected. Armed with the slogan “MN Is Ready,” MRMR joined forces with allies that included cannabis-activist groups Minnesota NORML and Sensible Change Minnesota.

Their first big win came in May 2021 when then-majority leader Ryan Winkler authored and gained approval in the DFL-controlled House for HF 600, a comprehensive bill that legalized cannabis for adult use and expunged the criminal records of people convicted of nonviolent offenses connected with cannabis, including possession and sale. House Speaker Melissa Hortman echoed MRMR’s social-justice emphasis in her remarks at time of passage: “Our current cannabis laws aren’t working for Minnesota,” she said. “Criminalizing a product that most people think should be available and continuing a legacy of racial injustice is simply not defensible.”

Among those who did not think that marijuana should be available on these terms, however, were the leaders of the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate, who blocked discussion of the issue. So Monn Ginsburg and her colleagues and allies had to turn their attention to the 2022 midterms—vowing to elect pro-cannabis DFLers as they educated and lobbied for change.

“House File 600 was an enormous milestone that allowed us to see that there really was a political will for legalization,” Monn Ginsburg says. “And the DFL was starting to understand how important its role was going to be in making this happen or hindering it. I firmly believe that cannabis is a nonpartisan issue, but it has been politicized, like many other things. In this state, it became evident that it was more or less ‘Democrats or bust’ as far as getting this done was concerned.”

Building Alliances, Shifting the Narrative

A big push was on the horizon, and MRMR morphed into a multifaceted entity that adopted that initial slogan, MN Is Ready, as its name. It included an alliance of industry, labor, and community groups—along with others devoted to educating the public, the media, and politicians on the issue—plus a political action committee and MN is Ready Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit.

“We needed to do a lot of educating in the legislative arena,” Monn Ginsburg says. “We needed to shift the narrative from the idea that people just want to get inebriated with cannabis to talking about the limitations of the existing medical program, the changing opinions in the country at large about cannabis, and its potential uses and strengths. And we had to combat a lot of the go-to sound bites about safety, children, and other worries. Of course there are legitimate concerns about cannabis.

It is absolutely something that should be used by adults and no one younger. But it is not a gateway drug to heroin. It is not something that is going to harm folks to the degree that it has to be categorized, as it is, a Schedule I drug. The time was right for the conversation to change.”

Monn Ginsburg was seeing that change in the opinions of legislators, particularly younger ones. It was a shift, she says, comparable to the one that codified same-sex marriage in the state in 2013. Monn Ginsburg, Fatehi, and company worked hard to promote the midterm candidacies of legalization advocates, particularly female ones.

Then the midterms saw something of a political earthquake. Minnesota posted a blue trifecta: Walz was reelected, the House retained its Democratic majority, and the DFL won control of the Senate. Sensing they had no time to waste, DFLers embarked on a juggernaut of progressive legislation that succeeded in reinforcing abortion rights, creating a family and medical leave program, expanding gun control, restoring voting rights to once-incarcerated felons, making school lunch free for K–12 students, setting a carbon-free standard for utility companies, protecting the rights of unionized workers, increasing taxes on corporations and high-investment-income earners, protecting transgender people and gender-affirming healthcare—and legalizing cannabis.

Seeing the legislation through under newly favorable political conditions was no walk in the park, however; it took endless hours of hard work. Rep. Zach Stephenson, a DFLer from the Twin Cities suburb of Coon Rapids, revised Winkler’s HF 600 and introduced the new measure in the House; the Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Port, who represents south-suburban areas of the Twin Cities metro. The bill underwent the scrutiny of some two dozen committees in the two chambers. And MN Is Ready was there, covering the discussions and explaining them as an important part of its educational mission.

“We live-tweeted every single hearing, every single floor debate, about cannabis,” says Monn Ginsburg. “We wanted to make the legislative process into something that people could feel like they understood—especially because we knew it would take so long and be so complicated. That was a core tenet of the campaign: how do we make this approachable to folks so that they can be interested in it and maybe learn a little bit about the legislative process, and what it takes to make a shift that’s this momentous.”

Opponents brought multiple concerns to committee hearings, including adverse mental-health effects of the drug, the problems that law enforcement anticipated in determining impairment (there’s no “breathalyzer” for marijuana), and the lack of current knowledge of the scope of the unsanctioned market in cannabis and how many cannabis users are suffering from substance-abuse disorder. But the “momentous shift” went forward, and a law that tried to meet many of those core objections while addressing the inequities of prohibition—and promoting a new industry—went on the books. Pot turned legal on August 1, 2023.

A Complex Process

As intense as it was, all the protracted and complex committee vetting produced advantages, Monn Ginsburg says. “Sure, it was a very lengthy process, but an upside of it was that we got to think about a lot of the aspects of the law and explore the various nooks and crannies of its implications and effects.”

Headlining the law were its provisions for the personal possession and growing of cannabis, and for clearing the criminal records of those who had been convicted of misdemeanor possession.

The law allows those 21 and older to possess or transport in public up to two ounces of cannabis flower and up to eight grams of cannabis concentrates. You can also possess and transport edible cannabis products, like gummies, containing up to 800 milligrams of THC, the ingredient in marijuana that creates the “high,” and possess up to two pounds of marijuana at home.

You’re allowed to smoke pot in a private residence or in the yard of the residence; on private property that’s not accessible to the public, if the owner allows it; and on the premises of a business or event licensed for on-site consumption. You can vape or smoke in an apartment house or other multifamily building for now, but this will be prohibited starting in 2025, except for registered medical cannabis patients. As for smoking outside in public spaces, it’s allowed anywhere it isn’t prohibited by Minnesota’s Clean Air Act or by city ordinance.

The bill redresses the arrest-and-incarceration excesses of the “war on drugs” by automatically expunging, or clearing, the criminal records of people charged with marijuana-related misdemeanors like simple possession, and a new Cannabis Expungement Board will review felony marijuana crimes on a case-by-case basis for possible expungement.

And the law goes well beyond loosening restrictions to set up a fairly robust infrastructure for individuals and companies to get into the cannabis business. An Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), still being formed, will be charged with issuing 17 different licenses to cannabis and cannabis-adjacent enterprises, including cannabis cultivator, manufacturer, retailer, microbusiness, mezzobusiness, wholesaler, transporter, delivery service, and even cannabis-event organizer.

Governor Tim Walz with state legislators and former governor Jesse Ventura after signing the bill making adult-use marijuana legal in Minnesota
Governor Tim Walz with state legislators and former governor Jesse Ventura after signing the bill making adult-use marijuana legal in Minnesota, May 30, 2023 | Photo by the Star Tribune via Getty Images

Ensuring Equity

Minnesota was the 23rd state to legalize recreational cannabis, and, according to Monn Ginsburg, it was able to learn from missteps in earlier laws and lawmaking. For example, many other states have strict limits on the number of licenses that can be offered, and this has allowed out-of-state operators to, in Monn Ginsburg’s words, “swoop in and scoop up available licenses to the detriment of the local industry.” Minnesota has no such cap on the number of licenses available, and in making licensing decisions the OCM is tasked with making sure that the state’s cannabis industry is predominantly “craft” (like its thriving craft-beer scene), with plenty of micro-scale (up to 5,000 square feet of cultivation space) and mezzo-scale (up to 15,000 square feet) growers/sellers.

Social equity is built into the cannabis-business provisions as well. The legislation gives priority for business licenses to “social equity applicants,” a category that includes people convicted of possessing or selling marijuana or their family members, veterans or active military members who forfeited “honorable” status because of a marijuana bust, farmers from underrepresented communities, and residents of neighborhoods that, in the words of the law, “experienced a disproportionately large amount of cannabis enforcement.”

And in line with Minnesota’s acknowledgment of the sovereignty of the 11 tribal nations within its borders, the law recognizes their right to make their own licensing decisions. As a result, while Minnesota won’t begin issuing cannabis business licenses until the OCM’s rulemaking process is complete, probably in early 2025, the Red Lake Nation in north-central Minnesota set up a licensed cannabis dispensary on tribal land on August 1, 2023, when recreational marijuana became legal. It’s had plenty of customers, many who have driven the 270 miles from the Twin Cities. The results have been positive, according to Samuel Strong, Red Lake’s tribal secretary. “People that are participating in this industry are very friendly, and very respectful of our laws,” he told Minnesota Public Radio in mid-August. “I think we’re really changing perceptions, both of outsiders coming onto Red Lake and of outsiders from Red Lakers’ perspective. That’s really a positive part . . . building those bridges, and cannabis is doing just that.”

A Good Start, but Room for Improvement

Nadia Elnagdy ’06 gives the cannabis law two out of three cheers. “It’s a solid step in the right direction,” says the Hennepin County assistant prosecutor, who is also a close friend of Monn Ginsberg. As for the decriminalizing elements of the law, she sees them as basically codifying practices that have been in place for a while. “For some time now,” she says, “we’ve decided that we were going to basically stop prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses. And so now we pretty much limit ourselves to major sales, and no possession at all really, unless it’s obscene amounts, like 50 or 60 pounds worth.”

Illustration of a cannabis leaf

Carleton and Cannabis

What does the August 2023 legalization of adult-use marijuana in Minnesota mean for Carleton? Nothing, says Amy Sillanpa, assistant dean of students and director of community standards. The possession, use, manufacture, and distribution of cannabis remain prohibited on campus. “In accordance with the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, this does not change Carleton’s drug and alcohol policy,” she says. “As a Title IV institution, Carleton is bound by federal rules, and marijuana is still considered an illicit drug at the federal level.” Only if cannabis is decriminalized nationally could the policy be revisited.

And when it comes to redressing injustice to people of color, Elnagdy wishes that the law had given preference to all members of Black and brown communities, given the impact on those people as a group—not only to convicted individuals, who may or may not be from those communities, and people in specific neighborhoods. “I think that there’s definite room for improvement and some missed opportunities,” she says. “I would have liked to see our Black and brown populations, small businesses of color, prioritized for cannabis licenses—I wish we had made it so that they get the first bite of the apple.”

And then there’s the fact that federal law still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug and outlaws it. This, according to cannabis-business attorney Jen Randolph Reise, is going to make setting up the businesses a challenge. As they wait for licensing to begin, her clients are floating ideas that “are going to potentially make for a really fun and energetic craft cannabis market in Minnesota,” she says. But until federal law changes—and there are initiatives in Washington to do just that—there are a number of areas of difficulty.

“Nobody is going to be accused of a federal crime for doing what’s legal in their state, Reise says, “but the fact that weed is federally illegal means a lot of weird things for state-legal cannabis businesses. You can’t accept credit cards for marijuana sales because the credit card companies are federally regulated. If you’ve ever been to a dispenser in a cannabis-legal state like Colorado or California, you know that you have to either pay in cash or use your debit card.”

Another problem is federal taxation. A section of the Internal Revenue Code forbids cannabis businesses from deducting their ordinary business expenses when calculating federal taxes. “And so businesses in Colorado, California, or wherever are routinely assessed something like 50 or 60 percent of their earnings in taxes,” says Reise. “It’s a huge problem, but it may get fixed before Minnesota runs into it.”

Despite these pitfalls, Reise says that there are plenty of hopeful entrepreneurs lining up for licenses in the wake of this big change in what cannabis means in Minnesota. “All businesses take risks,” she points out. “But it’s not every day that you get to participate in a brand-new industry for which there is already demand and no big competitors already there. That’s why they call it a green rush. Everybody’s standing on the starting line going, okay, okay, let’s go. And there’ll be winners and losers, like in any rush.”

Posted In

Appears in Issues: