With Marijuana Bill, Minnesota Democrats Seek to Repair Harms of War on Drugs

The new legalization bill would erase past convictions and prioritize marginalized communities for cannabis licenses, but some advocates worry it won’t do enough to atone for criminalization.

Alex Burness   |    January 20, 2023

(Cannabis Tours/Wikimedia Commons)

Minnesota’s Democratic lawmakers, newly in control of the state legislature, plan to legalize the recreational use and sale of cannabis this year. And they insist that in doing so they must account for past harm—namely, harm done by wildly uneven enforcement practices that made their state one of the most dangerous places in the country to be a Black person in possession of marijuana. 

“For me, it’s a racial justice issue. I wouldn’t support this without it,” state Senator Clare Oumou Verbeten, a lead sponsor of the legalization effort and one of just three Black women ever elected to the Minnesota Senate, told Bolts. “There’s the argument that people are already using cannabis, so let’s not criminalize them for it. Well, yes, but the people who have to live in fear are Black people. They’re impacted the most. We’re trying to right these wrongs.”

A recent nationwide report by the ACLU found that Black Minnesotans were more than five times more likely than white Minnesotans to be arrested for marijuana possession between 2010 and 2018, one of the highest racial disparities across all states. That’s but one example of longstanding systemic inequality that has earned Minnesota the nickname “Mississippi of the North.”

“We’re constantly at the top of these lists in terms of quality of life, best places to live,” Oumou Verbeten said. “It’s not true for people who look like me.”

This is why she and many other backers of Minnesota’s legalization effort want the state’s program to be as dedicated to racial and class justice as any in the country. While early adopters like Colorado waited years after legalization to adopt policy confronting the damage done by the war on drugs, Minnesota lawmakers seek to do that work upfront. 

Their legalization bill, House File 100, proposes to help marginalized communities gain footholds in the regulated recreational cannabis industry by giving them preferential access to business licenses. These licenses would be awarded based on a points system weighted in favor of the poor and those who can demonstrate personal or familial harm from cannabis prohibition.

The bill would also automatically expunge records of low-level cannabis convictions, including for petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor charges over the sale or possession of up to 42.5 grams of marijuana. These convictions can acutely inhibit social mobility by blocking people from stable housing and employment, and can, in some cases, plunge people into a prolonged morass of criminalization and poverty. 

Jon Geffen, a law professor and attorney with The Legal Revolution, a Minnesota nonprofit law firm, explained that prior conviction records are currently public in Minnesota. As a result, “you can use that data for anything you want: hiring, renting—hell, even dating if you want it. Whether or not it was weed it comes up as ‘drugs,’ and people rarely hire people with drug convictions. People lose jobs and apartments. Families separate because of these things.”

For some advocates, though, these equity provisions may be too little, too late for those affected by the war on drugs.

Many political leaders now cast equity as core to their legalization efforts, rather than a footnote to be addressed years after state industries ramp up. In New York, people with past marijuana convictions are being given a first crack at business licenses. In Maryland, new Governor Wes Moore, sworn in this week, has insisted the state’s soon-to-launch legal cannabis industry must prize social justice and “economic parity.” Like the regulated cannabis industry itself, this concept of licensing equity is a rather new one; Oakland pioneered it in 2017.

But these equity projects have rarely gone smoothly, or delivered their stated impacts. Some Oakland licensees feel that the city’s program has done them more harm than good. Lawsuits challenging cannabis equity provisions in places like Detroit, Maine and Missouri have slowed or thwarted progress

Also, even the most equity-minded cannabis legalization policies do little to repair certain harms. Giving people from overpoliced communities special access to cannabis dispensary or cultivation licenses, for instance, won’t change the fact that those people are less likely to have business ownership experience, professional mentorship, and investor networks—intangible assets that help sustain an operation. 

Angela Dawson, a northern Minnesota hemp farmer and a champion for agricultural opportunities for Black people, said the expungement plan laid out in Minnesota’s pending bill would do very little for people like her younger brother, whose marijuana conviction two decades ago threw him for a prolonged tailspin.

“He lost time in school, never graduated. He met up with some pretty bad people while he was in jail. He didn’t have an opportunity to do anything else,” Dawson told Bolts. “He just got out of prison in November.”

Clearing marijuana charges like his will be relatively easy for the state, policy experts in Minnesota say. But that can’t undo twenty-plus years of compounding challenges and lost time that stemmed from his first drug charge. 

“It shouldn’t cost you your whole entire future,” she said.

Oumou Verbeten acknowledged that this bill alone won’t unwind these longstanding harms. She said she hopes to pair the cannabis legislation with complementary bills to seal eviction records and to ban public employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories. She is also sponsoring legislation that would restore voting rights to Minnesotans on parole and probation—a population that skews disproportionately Black, Native American, and Latino.

These and other bills are viable in large part because Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party flipped the state Senate in November, claiming full control of the state government for the first time since 2014. 

The state House passed legislation in 2021 to legalize cannabis but the bill fizzled in the state Senate, which was then under control of Republicans. (One GOP leader at the time said there was “zero chance” his party would go along.)  Minnesota politicos believe it’s nearly assured to pass this time around, though its final form may be several months and about a dozen more committee hearings away.

But now that they have a trifecta, Democrats see marijuana legalization as a headlining bill in a legislative session that is also poised to see Minnesota lawmakers codify abortion rights, advance paid family and medical leave, and seek to expand voting access.

A recent poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon, shows a slim majority of overall Minnesotans—and a wide majority of non-white Minnesotans—back cannabis legalization. The country at large favors it, too, and strongly supports expungement of cannabis convictions.  

The specific design of the major equity portions of this year’s legalization bill in Minnesota are getting mixed reviews from criminal justice reform and racial justice advocates.

On expungements, “the framework of it is pretty darn good,” Geffen said. He noted that the bill would make expungements automatic and free, a measure that MinnPost estimates would affect some 50,000 people with criminal records.

The state already accepts petitions for expungement, in a process that is anything but user-friendly. He described it as a winding road with all sorts of obstacles over which even his law students regularly trip. Any mistake along the way can lead a court to toss a petition, with no way for the applicant to recoup the $305 the state requires for every charge one seeks to expunge.

“So the populations that don’t use it are poor populations. It’s a double whammy, where poor people are over-prosecuted, over-charged, and then they don’t get expunged, even when they’re eligible, because they don’t have the money to pay an attorney,” Geffen told Bolts.

Tom Gallagher, a Hennepin County (Minneapolis) criminal defense attorney and libertarian advocate for legalized cannabis, wishes the bill went further by categorically granting gun ownership rights back to people who lost those rights because of felony drug convictions. He doesn’t expect liberal lawmakers to restore gun rights through this bill, but he argues they should, in order to thwart the cycle of criminality that drug prohibition can catalyze. 

“Let’s say you’re 19 years old and you get convicted of possessing two ounces of marijuana. Now, 10 years later, you get caught with a gun in your house, but now you’re an ineligible person in possession of a firearm, and you’re looking at a minimum of 3 years in prison in Minnesota,” Gallagher told Bolts. “It’s purely the status of the person in possession of the gun that makes the crime.”

The bill’s second core equity provision—licensing equity—also faces questions as to its scope and implementation.

The state has had a regulated medical marijuana industry for seven years, and, at present, that entire sector is controlled by one of two corporations,.

The new legislation contains provisions meant to chart a more equitable path for the recreational cannabis industry by requiring that the state substantially favor cannabis business license applications from so-called “social equity” applicants—that is, residents for at least five years in areas “that experienced a disproportionately large amount of cannabis enforcement,” as determined by a state report not yet produced. People could also qualify for “social equity” status in business licensing if they live in areas with poverty rates of 20 percent or more, or where the median family income does not exceed 80 percent of the statewide mark.

Oumou Verbeten said the idea, transparently, is to give a boost to Black and Latino would-be businesspeople, but that it’d be thorny, and possibly illegal, to legislate in explicit favor of one or more racial groups over others.

“If you look at concentrated places of poverty and overlay that with racial demographics, then, yes, a lot of those areas are where we’re going to see communities of color,” Oumou Verbeten said. “We want to make sure people who’ve been harmed get the priority. And those are people of color, and Black Minnesotans especially.”

This goal is easier stated than accomplished, Black leaders in Colorado’s cannabis industry told Bolts. Boosting an application is much easier and cheaper, after all, than providing sustained training and financial support needed to get a cannabis business up and running. 

And that’s leaving aside headwinds that these businesses face in the market; existing federal prohibition cuts off cannabis operators from the tools other industries enjoy, like basic inclusion in banking systems, or loans and guidance from the Small Business Administration.

“In trying to bend ourselves into equity and things that make right, basically the entire industry is failing top to bottom,” Denver entrepreneur Wanda James told Bolts. For years she was the only Black cannabis business owner in Colorado, among hundreds of businesses; now, she says, she’s one of a few.

“The really sad thing is we are setting up Black and brown entrepreneurs for a massive failure. And at that point of massive failure, they don’t even have bankruptcy protection,” because cannabis remains illegal federally, James added.

She said Colorado and other states can do much better in providing support to licensees and those harmed in the war on drugs, but she said she’s skeptical policymakers can ever truly legislate out the impediments to equity that she and others trace to federal prohibition.

Jeff Brinkman, a Minnesota hemp entrepreneur, is also concerned that the state will not adopt enough legal protections on how licenses can be transferred from one business to another. “I just feel that as the bill is developed and revamped, if they aren’t keeping their eye in the loopholes and on how to build this industry for small business, that’s when we’ll get the takeover” by wealthy interests. 

When “social equity” licensees fail to launch, policymakers are given cover to say, “See, we tried and it failed,” Hashim Coates, executive director of Black Brown and Red Badged, an organization representing Black and Latino business owners in the cannabis industry, told Bolts.

“Just creating an opportunity without the intention of success is not creating an opportunity,” he added.