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What does recreational pot hold for Minnesota? Lawmakers, trade groups weigh in

Marijuana plants growing at Leafline Labs in Cottage Grove. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Minnesota could generate billions in new tax revenue over the next five years by legalizing recreational marijuana, according to one Denver-based pot consultancy and research firm.

By the Marijuana Policy Group's estimate, legalization would also create approximately new 27,000 jobs. That might not be reason enough to legalize cannabis outright, lawmakers and lobbyists said Wednesday, Nov 6., but it's at least worth talking about.

"Cannabis by itself is not going to fix the financial woes of any state," said Sal Barnes at Wednesday's cannabis symposium in downtown Minneapolis.

But in states like Colorado that have legalized the drug for recreational use, he said, it can at the least provide a new source of funding for municipal governments and local schools. Barnes, the firm's strategy director, said the catch is in regulating pot to a point where businesses still have a fair shot to break into the market for it but not so loosely as to inadvertently create an illegal market for it.

He cited Texas as an example, where he said licensing fees for medical cannabis-related businesses were high enough to prevent many who wanted to start them from doing so. Texas only allows marijuana to be used for certain medical conditions, and only in the form of oil with low levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical compound found in pot.

On the other hand, he said that the abundance of legally cultivated marijuana in Oregon — where recreational use is legal — has led to it appearing in the black market.

Lawmakers present at Wednesday's summit were noncommittal about the prospect of legalizing recreational marijuana in Minnesota, whose medical marijuana program is said to be the most restrictive in the country. State Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, said that while he doesn't believe the state is ready for legalization, he would support the creation of a task force dedicated to the study of legalization.

Sens. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, and Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, agreed that the Legislature needs to discuss legalization more seriously. Franzen said Wednesday that a failed bill on recreational marijuana that she authored in March was "meant to be killed," and was intended to foster such a conversation before it was blocked by a Senate committee.

Hayden and Jensen were critical of the way the bill was killed, with the latter saying she had been "ambushed."

"The committee did everything they could to squash it," Jensen said.

The three agreed that the effect legalization could have on intoxicated driving rates, as well as its purported impact on youth brain development, need to be hashed out further. The three also signaled their support for efforts to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana as well as the expunging of criminal records for those who were previously convicted of the crime.

Hampering the expansion of the marijuana industry at large are the regulatory differences between states and the illegality of the drug at the federal level. The uncertainty, Minneapolis attorney Kevin Riach said Wednesday, is substantial enough for banks and insurers to withhold their support for cannabis-related businesses.

Concerns over the amount of THC in industrial hemp, said Barnes, are among the most pressing to the industry today.

This story has been updated to correct the day of the week.