Minnesota to overhaul drug laws for the first time in 27 years

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After weeks of closed-door wrangling between law enforcement, defense attorneys and lawmakers, a compromise has been reached on a proposed plan to majorly revamp the state’s drug laws for the first time in 27 years.

A state commission’s plan — released late last year — to lighten penalties, particularly for first-time offenders, was met with serious push-back by county prosecutors and some in the House, who took issue with any leniency offered to the most serious, first-degree offenders.

Critics of Minnesota’s current drug laws — including many working in law enforcement — say they now treat common users like hardened criminals and jail them for years instead of focusing on treatment. The amount of drugs required to trigger serious charges was much too low compared to other states, and people could be jailed for ambiguously-defined “trace” amounts such as the smear of a bong bowl or residue for a baggie.

The proposed compromise would:

  • In general lower the “sentencing guidelines” — the amount of prison time a convicted criminal will be presumed to get when sentenced by a judge — for all drug crimes, regardless of degree. The sentence for first-degree sales and possession, for example, would drop from just over seven years to five and a half years.
  • Additionally, the amount of confiscated drugs required to trigger a charge has been increased for drugs like methamphetamine or cocaine — but is actually less for marijuana. For example, it would take 50 grams of a harder drug to trigger the most serious — first-degree — possession charge, up from the current 25 grams. But if a convict is found to have possessed a gun, the old thresholds stay in place. For marijuana, on the other hand, the 100 kg required for a first-degree possession charge has been reduced to 50 kg. Defense attorneys noted that Minnesota’s marijuana thresholds are extraordinarily permissive compared to most other states, and agreed to allow them to become more strict. Thresholds for heroine, which prosecutors say is particularly addictive and deadly, remain untouched.
  • It would define what a “trace” amount of drugs is: anything up to 1 dosage unit — a pill, or a quarter-gram of cocaine or methamphetamine. Also, possession charges for trace amounts would become a gross misdemeanor, rather than a felony for a first offense.
  • As a compromise made to appease prosecutors, sentences for what prosecutors have called “kingpin” dealers — those possessing or selling especially large quantities of drugs — would become mandatory, unalterable by a judge. Also, if the accused possessed a gun, the old, harsher sentencing levels would stay in place, in addition to being mandatory.
  • Mandatory penalties would be eliminated on lesser-degree drug crimes, allowing judges to be more lenient. As for the more serious first- and second-degree crimes — those not involving “kingpins” —  judges would be required to assign only a mandatory penalty if criminals had committed the exact same type of crime before. Currently, mandatory sentences are applied if criminals had been convicted of any type of drug crime.
  • Stays of adjudication only where a person pleads guilty but no conviction goes on their record, as long as they comply with their conviction’s terms, only would be mandatory for the least serious (but most common) fifth-degree drug convictions, provided it was a first-time offense. Such stays would also be permissible, but not mandatory, for third- and fourth-degree drug crimes.

Brock Hunter, a defense attorney who took part in the negotiations, called the results “a compromise, none of the parties are entirely happy with it.”

Dakota County attorney James Backstrom said the agreement was “quite frankly a historic compromise reached by some organizations that don’t necessarily agree.

“In general terms, what this proposal accomplished is not just being tough on most serious offenders, but being smart on how we approach drug sentencing in this state. It’s been needed for many years … it will also make our community safer in the long run. And it’s the right thing to do.”

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. (Courtesy photo)
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. (Courtesy photo)

State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who chairs the Senate’s judiciary committee and took part in negotiations, called the new framework something that “treats addicts like addicts instead of hardened criminals,” while adding that, “the ones that really need to be in prison will be going to prison.”

Latz added that the guidelines would save over 600 prison beds.

State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who chairs the House’s public safety committee, also said he supports the agreement.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R- Vernon Center. (Courtesy photo)
Rep. Tony Cornish, R- Vernon Center. (Courtesy photo)

“If law enforcement is satisfied, I’m satisfied,” Cornish said.

During a press conference announcing the proposed changes Friday, several police chiefs stood in favor of the deal.

Bloomington police chief Jeff Potts called the negotiations hard-fought, and the deal “better than the alternative.”

If both houses of the legislature do not pass a bill enacting the proposed changes, and Governor Mark Dayton does not sign it into law, the state commission’s initial recommendations would be enacted instead, by default. Police and prosecutors would likely have the loudest complaints about such a scenario.

Latz said the changes will be in a bill that now sits before the Senate’s rules committee; Cornish said he wasn’t sure how he would introduce the changes, but there were several legislative options available.


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