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Concerns Over Social Equity Priorities Continue to Plague Minnesota’s Adult-Use Market Launch

During an update meeting between interim Office of Cannabis Management Director Charlene Briner and state lawmakers, the polarizing issue of social equity licensing arose as a continuing point of contention for Republican legislators.



As the state of Minnesota prepares for the launch of its new adult-use cannabis market, the question of how to implement the legalization statute's social equity provisions continues to be a massive point of disagreement.


According to multiple media outlets, on Tuesday, the Office of Cannabis Management's (OCM) interim director, Charlene Briner, met with lawmakers to discuss her office's current progress in implementing the state's regulated recreational marijuana sector.


Most of the discussion centered on matters ranging from staffing concerns for the new office to the much-anticipated launch of the OCM's new business license application portal. However, the one topic of interest that drew particular ire from several Republicans on the panel was the well-intentioned but perplexing issue of who will exactly qualify for social equity advantages under the new law. 


The main point of contention for many GOP lawmakers and a large segment of Minnesotans was articulated most passionately by Sen. Jordan Rasmusson (R), who openly questioned why the current proposed equity rules allow for individuals with past criminal convictions for selling marijuana to not only operate retail dispensary outlets but also receive social equity status in licensing.


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


"You'd think if we were trying to find a safe, regulated market, that would be a surprising first proposal coming from the regulatory agency."

- MN State Sen. Jordan Rasmusson (R)


In answering Sen. Rasmusson's question, Briner made the completely unexpected and heartbreaking admission that she is the parent of someone currently in prison on drug charges. 


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


"I have a son who has been convicted of drug offenses and is currently incarcerated. And while I will never defend his choices, I have to believe as a mother in second chances."

- Minnesota OCM Interim Director Charlene Briner


Unphased by the question, she further doubled down on her position by saying, "My hope is that as a state, we will give opportunity for second chances to people who have paid their dues and who have proven that they are reintegrated into society and have become contributing members."


Over the past few months, OCM officials have provided regular updates concerning the status of Minnesota's legal adult-use cannabis market rollout and detailed changes to the plan recommended by Briner and her colleagues. During her presentation on Tuesday, she reiterated that the proposals are geared toward speeding up the opening of the legal market and to "strengthen the already robust social equity goals in the bill." 


One of those proposed changes is for the OCM to issue temporary licenses for specific businesses as soon as this summer. For Rasmusson and others, the main controversy centers on a provision in that plan, which requires companies to be at least two-thirds controlled by individuals impacted most by prohibition. It is that massive over-correction to seemingly reward those who have committed felonies that prompted the understandable criticism by Rasmusson.


For his part, Gov. Tim Walz (D) says he supports the plan but wants the equity program to be crafted to avoid legal challenges. However, Rasmusson believes regulators need to reconsider their priorities.


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


"I would just encourage the agency to think about the health and safety of Minnesotans and not how we can make money for certain groups."

- MN State Sen. Jordan Rasmusson (R)


The issue of social equity concerns is a topic that raises a host of problems for many advocates, stakeholders, and opponents of a legalized adult-use market. While the intentions of specific progressive-minded states to provide some measure of compensation or reparations for the past wrongs perpetrated during the ill-conceived and disastrous "War on Drugs" is a virtuous and integrity-driven policy decision, the application of social equity provisions by Minnesota officials appears to "over reward" those who broke the law over those who did not.


Americans love giving second chances, and redemption is a powerful theme for many comeback success stories in this country. However, as with many efforts to right the wrongs of the past, Minnesota's overly forgiving philosophy may backfire down the road. 


There is always room for individuals who made mistakes, paid their penance, and are now ready to reemerge into society with a little helping hand. But that room also needs to provide enough space for other hard-working and deserving souls whose only crime is that they never committed one. 


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