Minnesota’s journey from legalizing medical marijuana in 2014 to the passage of a recreational cannabis law in 2023 has been one of incremental steps toward broader acceptance.
However, with these leaps come regulatory hurdles, and the latest legislation has inadvertently left an open door for the sale of cannabis flower, creating a complex governance challenge. In response, state regulators are currently navigating the legislative process to address this ‘loophole’ and establish effective parameters around raw cannabis sale and use as first reported by MinnPost.
The issue at hand is how raw cannabis flower, commonly sold under the label THCa, is regulated under Minnesota’s new recreational marijuana law. While it is legal to possess marijuana, the sale of raw flower currently remains tightly regulated, with licenses not expected to be issued until 2025, and temporary provisions giving the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) the authority to police its sale.
In late 2023, a regulatory dispute arose when the Office of Medical Cannabis, which was temporarily tasked with regulating hemp-derived products, claimed it lacked the legal authority to oversee the sale of raw cannabis flower—leaving many retailers on the edge of compliance.
The regulatory uncertainty prompted a swift response, with Charlene Briner, the interim director of OCM, steering legislation to expedite the transfer of enforcement powers from the Office of Medical Cannabis. This proactive move not only seeks to close the regulatory gap but also aims to bolster OCM’s operational capabilities in preparation for broader responsibilities.
The Regulatory Conundrum
The heart of Minnesota’s cannabis regulation challenge revolves around the interpretation and application of legal authority. The 2023 recreational marijuana law vested the OCM with the power to enforce regulations related to raw cannabis flower, yet handily omitted the necessary resources to do so effectively. This oversight has had practical implications, resulting in a market where the legal status of cannabis flower remains a gray area.
At the federal and state levels, the distinction between hemp and marijuana hinges on the THC concentration, with the former defined as containing 0.3% or less per the 2018 Farm Bill. As a result, raw hemp flower—although technically legal under the 2023 law—may still pose challenges in differentiation and enforcement due to the difficulty in assessing THC levels on-site.
This conundrum has given rise to concerns among law enforcement and the public. The absence of clear regulatory oversight for cannabis flower has implications for potency testing, legal sales, and consumer protection, highlighting the need for a swift and decisive response from state authorities.
Bridging the Regulatory Gap
In response to the identified regulatory gap, the OCM has embarked on a dual-strategy approach. The first prong involves accelerating the transition of enforcement personnel from the Office of Medical Cannabis to the OCM, thereby equipping the latter with the mandated authority. This move is not just reactionary but serves as a preemptive strategy to streamline enforcement capabilities well in advance of the 2025 full implementation.
“Accelerating the transition and bringing over the enforcement team from the Office of Medical Cannabis, bringing them over to OCM as early as July 1, 2024, helps us better integrate those operations (and) develop additional consistency in our enforcement approach,” Briner said in a webinar.
The second prong involves the creation of interagency agreements with complementary bodies, such as the Department of Agriculture, to fortify OCM’s reach and operational structure. By extending the regulatory powers of these agencies to encompass the oversight of hemp-related activities, Minnesota hopes to create a unified front against potential infractions within the cannabis sector.
Briner’s approach to not only plugging the regulatory gap but also fortifying the state’s cannabis regulatory ecosystem underscores the strategic vision needed to navigate such a complex and rapidly evolving industry. The proposed changes and administrative actions demonstrate the commitment to a comprehensive regulatory framework that is both consistent and adaptable.
The Path Forward
As Minnesota works to define and refine its cannabis regulations, the state serves as a microcosm for the challenges that lay ahead in other parts of the country. The need for coherent and agile regulatory mechanisms has never been more apparent, especially as more states embrace the full spectrum of cannabis products—from medical to recreational, and from hemp-derived to raw flower.
As the OCM navigates the terrain of a nascent industry, it sets a course not only for regulatory compliance but for consumer safety, equitable market access, and the responsible growth of the cannabis economy. It is a path with significant challenges and opportunities, one that will require ongoing collaboration and a commitment to continuous improvement.
With each step, Minnesota is shaping the future of cannabis regulation, not only for the state but as a valuable case study for the nation. As we anticipate the next moves in this unfolding saga, we are witnessing the birth of a new paradigm—one that aims to balance innovation with oversight and, ultimately, to provide a model for other jurisdictions facing similar transitions.
For Minnesota, the road to closing the regulatory loophole surrounding raw cannabis flower is nuanced and challenging. By learning from and building upon this experience, the state will not only cement its standing as a progressive innovator in cannabis policy but also pave the way for a more inclusive and robust industry on a national scale.