Written by attorney Jesse Hall
2014 Update: Medical Marijuana Legalized in Minnesota
Minnesota has a new law permitting medical marijuana to be sold and used under limited circumstances. Learn more at our Cannabis Business FAQ.
“Medicinal marijuana” (commonly referred to as “medical marijuana”) refers to the use of the cannabis plant as a physician-recommended medicine or herbal therapy. Cannabis (or marijuana) was widely used as a pain reliever throughout the West world up until the point aspirin was created. The United States then banned the use of cannabis through a series of federal laws and tax regulations.
Enforcement of Medicinal Marijuana Laws
Just this past October (2009), the United States Department of Justice issued a memorandum to federal law enforcement agents stating that people who use or supply marijuana for medicinal (or medical) purposes should not be the target of law enforcement for either arrest or prosecution.
As of now, medicinal marijuana has been made legal in 13 states nationwide. And many others have passed laws favorable to (or less harsh for) those involved in the medicinal marijuana industry – from growers, to distributor, to prescribers, to sellers and dispensaries, to users.
The most important thing to remember is that all marijuana is still banned by United States federal law (with some narrow exceptions for scientific experimentation and the production of hemp products, which are created from marijuana plant fibers but contain no meaningful psychoactive agents). Thus, marijuana users (including medicinal users) can still be arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned as allowed by controlling law.
This recent change in the way federal agents enforce marijuana laws against medicinal users (who do so in conformity with local state laws) is a change from previous federal actions. For example, George W. Bush and his administration maintained the position that ALL people who use marijuana (whether under a doctor’s supervision or not) were breaking the law and therefore deserving of being arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced according to the law – often carrying lengthy prison sentences of those convicted.
Under the current administration, with President Barack Obama at the helm, it appears they have decided that coming after state-approved medicinal marijuana patients (i.e., those persons properly certified under state medical laws) is a waste of time and resources – particularly when tax dollars scarce and government tax budget are reaching all-time deficits. Specifically, the Department of Justice Memo told federal prosecutors they “should not focus federal resources in your states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”
The Current State of Minnesota’s Medicinal Marijuana Laws
Medicinal (or medical) marijuana has not been made legal in Minnesota…yet. For starters, though, the new “guidelines” by the U.S. Department of Justice may tend to promote Minnesota legislators to make it legal. That is to say, the federal mentality may carry over to the states – including Minnesota. So to that end, it’s a good start.
However, there is still some resistance to legalizing medicinal marijuana. One generally asserted argument by lawmakers is their hesitancy to pass state laws that directly contradict federal laws – as this can be confusing for both constituents and law enforcement officers alike.
Nonetheless, some Minnesota lawmakers continue to introduce legislation that would legalize medicinal marijuana. Since 1999 alone, nine legislative bills have been introduced to the Minnesota State Legislature (nearly one every year). The most recent legislation seeking to make medical marijuana legal was done so with wide bipartisan support (see Senate Bill SF0097; and companion House Bill HF0292). However, even after making its way through (and being approved by) numerous legislative committees, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed the bill in May of 2009.
Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty said he opposed the law because he thinks making medical marijuana legal would (1) increase the level of crime in Minnesota and (2) create “serious public safety and health risks” because people would be using marijuana (or course, never mind that they would be doing so under the direction supervision of their family doctor and with a valid prescription for medical quality marijuana).
Fortunately for people with compassion for those in pain and for those suffering from treatable illnesses and who support the legalization of marijuana for medical treatment purposes, Governor Pawlenty may not be seeking reelection in 2010. Thus, successfully introducing a bill (and passing it and getting it signed into law) may be more possible in 2011 than in times past. Additionally, there is always the option of passing a constitutional amendment to the Minnesota Constitution guaranteeing the right to prescribe, cultivate and grow, dispense and sell, and of course use medicinal marijuana. Colorado recently did this, and it’s been forcing the state’s cooperation with and support for the medicinal community. Maybe we can learn from our friends in the southwest.
For now, however, it is still illegal to possess or use marijuana in the state of Minnesota. Possessing up to 42.5 grams of marijuana (just under 1 ½ ounces) is a “petty misdemeanor,” which is fineable up to $300 and “does not constitute a crime.” See Minn. Stat. § 609.02, Subd. 4a. The same is true of selling such “small amounts” if “done for no remunerations.” Minn. Stat. § 152.0262, Subd. 4.
Of course possessing and selling greater amounts of marijuana carry greater convictions and punishments. Also, possession of marijuana in a motor vehicle is a misdemeanor crime if done under certain and specific (and legally-defined) circumstances. See Minn. Stat. § 152.0262, Subd. 3.
Driving under the influence of marijuana (or any controlled substance) is also a criminal violation of Minnesota law, carrying possible penalties of incarceration and restrictions on a person driving privileges.
Under Minnesota tax laws, the state requires taxes to be paid on all “marijuana … that is held possessed, transported, transferred, sold, or offered to be sold in violation of Minnesota laws” at a rate of “$3.50 per gram.” Minnesota Department of Revenue Tax Handbook released February 2005 (2004 Ed.), Controlled Substance Tax, p.25 (citing Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 297D). Minnesota is just one of about half of all states that tax marijuana and that regulated and mandate packages of marijuana to possess and tax stamp confirming the tax was paid on that package. The State of Minnesota reports that “less than twenty” taxpayers satisfy this regulation every year. The taxation requirement is of course just one more way for the state to prosecute and punish the marijuana industry (including medicinal marijuana), as most people will not report the tax because the product is itself contraband. But then if a person arrested for marijuana, they are also most likely not in compliance with state tax law, and they can thereby be prosecuted for felony tax evasion and other related tax crimes (not to mention, being forced to pay “back taxes” that are outstanding and remain owed to the state).
But even given the web of laws around marijuana and medicinal marijuana use, the legalization of medical marijuana is supported by a majority of Minnesotans. In 2008, a KSTP-TV/SurveyUSA poll showed support from 64 percent of Minnesotans (including 58 percent of Republicans), to legalize medical marijuana. In fact, Minnesotans have favored the legalization of medical marijuana by more than 60 percent in most public opinion polls over the last 10 years.