Cannabis Regulators in Minnesota Share Plan for Legalization Rollout

Cannabis Regulators in Minnesota Share Plan for Legalization Rollout

During an informational meeting on Wednesday, officials described the long and highly detailed path ahead for implementing the state's new marijuana legalization statute.

One of the more crucial yet less reported aspects of cannabis legalization at the state level is creating and regulating the monitoring, testing, and licensing infrastructures necessary to safely and legally establish an adult-use market. Just because voters or a state legislature approve cannabis reform initiatives and measures does not necessarily mean retail dispensaries will begin opening immediately.


The perplexing case of Virginia's recreational marijuana law is a prime example of just how sideways the process can go. In April 2021, then-Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill legalizing the adult-use cannabis market in Virginia. The measure allows adults 21 years and older to possess up to an ounce of cannabis, smoke it privately and cultivate up to four plants in their homes.


However, unlike other states' legalization bills, Virginia's new law calls for the state assembly to reenact several additional provisions of the 2021 measure, including ones that detail regulatory and market structure. Unfortunately, those efforts have come to a frustrating and demoralizing halt for industry stakeholders and advocates.


Experts point to two pivotal events when describing why Virginia's effort to establish retail sales by the beginning of 2024 will most likely be unsuccessful. First, following the November 2021 state election, Republicans took back the governor's office and the State House of Delegates.


Now that the GOP has a firm grip on the legislative and executive branches, they do not appear amenable to putting forth any effort to pass the necessary legislation to create a regulatory and licensing infrastructure.


Virginia's rather unique legislative calendar is the second and more bizarre contributing factor. Because of an odd quirk in Virginia Assembly protocol, the legislature only meets for 30 days in odd-numbered years. As a result of that limitation, the state legislature adjourned on February 25, with no alternative legislation passed to create a path for retail sales in 2024.


Adding more blockades and barriers to the process, the new Governor, Glenn Youngkin (R), is a devout Christian, an aspiring Presidential candidate and a staunch anti-marijuana crusader. With his encouragement, the Republican-controlled House has consistently quashed any cannabis-related legislation to establish a regulated market in Virginia.


So, while Virginians can legally possess, smoke, and grow their own cannabis, there appears to be no realistic path for establishing a legal and regulated retail dispensary system in the state. The lesson and warning to other states considering passing legalization reform measures is to ensure there is no unfinished business or lack of clarity when drafting and enacting the statute(s).


With cautionary tales like the one still playing out in the Cavalier State in the back of their minds, Minnesota officials officially began unveiling their plan to implement the state's new cannabis law, which went into effect on August 1.


As first reported by Marijuana Moment this past Wednesday night, the team tasked by Governor Tim Walz (DFL) to shepherd the rollout convened a meeting to discuss updates on the search for a director of the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) director along with a substantial list of issues that remain to be ironed out through an expedited rulemaking process.


"This is really a unique opportunity for us to assess the business needs, to evaluate the authorities that the legislature and the governor have given to the Office of Cannabis Management, and then to meet those business needs in a way that really helps us ensure the success of the cannabis industry in Minnesota," Charlene Briner, OCM's implementation director, said at the meeting.


"This is really a unique opportunity for us to assess the business needs, to evaluate the authorities that the legislature and the governor have given to the Office of Cannabis Management, and then to meet those business needs in a way that really helps us ensure the success of the cannabis industry in Minnesota."

- Charlene Briner, OCM's Implementation Director


While the new law allows adults over 21 to possess and home-cultivate cannabis in Minnesota, officials do not expect state-licensed retail dispensaries to open until mid-2025. During that two-year interim period, the implementation team will be busy setting up OCM governance, conducting public outreach programs, and codifying a multitude of new rules and regulatory guidelines for Minnesota's new recreational marijuana industry.


The most pressing need to address is identifying and hiring the most qualified individual to run the OCM. Briner is leading the search process and is expected to submit her list of final candidates to Walz's office later this month. He, in turn, has promised to appoint the new director by early September.


Once the director is in place, the state will appoint a 51-member Cannabis Advisory Council, including a wide range of stakeholders, including individuals from the public health sector, the medical cannabis community, the marijuana industry, and others. Officials will announce those individuals chosen to comprise the Council later this fall.


Then the detail-oriented and potentially tedious process of rulemaking will commence. During the meeting, Briner stated that her team wants to gather as much data as possible and provide a high degree of transparency throughout the process.


"There is a tremendous hunger for information about what this will look like, about how we're going to go about rulemaking. We're trying to be very proactive, as much as possible, to provide external communications," Briner said.


"There is a tremendous hunger for information about what this will look like, about how we're going to go about rulemaking. We're trying to be very proactive, as much as possible, to provide external communications."

- Charlene Briner, OCM's Implementation Director


Of the myriad of items that will require clear and effective rules, the more notable ones include business licensing procedures, environmental controls, packaging and labeling requirements, the use of pesticides and fertilizers, laboratory testing and a statewide monitoring system.


Briner also stated that, for now, Minnesota's hemp sector and medical marijuana programs will remain unchanged from a regulatory oversight standpoint. However, she pointed out that both will eventually transition to OCM control by early 2025.


For many Minnesotans, the almost two-year wait to purchase cannabis at a licensed retailer may seem extreme. However, the delay is necessary and worthwhile for those officials tasked with creating the system. During his portion of the presentation, Chris McNulty, deputy general counsel for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, explained that the rulemaking process is designed to give more granular guidance than the language of the legalization measure provides.


Likewise, he added that the need for public outreach and engagement significantly contributes to why the rulemaking process will most likely stretch into 2025. He and the rest of Briner's team hope to have the guidelines hammered out and approved by spring 2025. Most importantly, McNulty highlighted the vital point that the process must be complete before state-licensed stores can open for business.


No one likes to wait, especially when it comes to an item as novel and popular as recreational cannabis. However, as the citizens of Virginia will attest, it is better to take it slow and get it right than to rush the process and leave out important details like setting up a retail dispensary infrastructure before the next election comes along, allowing the Republicans to take over and shut it all down.


In the meantime, thanks to a clever provision in the new statute, Minnesotans can visit the Red Lake and White Earth Nations' reservations to purchase legal adult-use marijuana products in person or online. To paraphrase an old and wise adage, "Good and safe weed comes to those who wait."