Minneapolis police officers will continue to arrest people caught with marijuana on city streets, they said a day after Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that his office would stop prosecuting many minor pot possession cases.
John Elder, police spokesman, said that while possession is a low priority for a police force overwhelmed with their roles as "mental health workers, first responders to the opioid crisis and protectors from violent crimes," its law enforcement responsibilities are unchanged.
"While marijuana continues to be a lowest-level enforcement priority for the MPD, it's our job to enforce laws on the books, and it's the Hennepin County Attorney's job to determine how to handle cases," Elder said via e-mail on Friday. "Without these cases being sent to the County Attorney's Office, diversion, community service or dismissed convictions could not happen."
Freeman said Thursday that his office won't charge most people who are caught possessing or selling less than 100 grams of marijuana. Some will be considered for a diversion program, community service or a sentence that can be dismissed if certain conditions are fulfilled, he told the Star Tribune.
Freeman's spokesman, Chuck Laszewski, said the new policy is far from a "get out of jail free card," but rather an effort to address stark racial disparities.
"He has a certain amount of discretion on how he deals with the laws and we will get the cases, and when they meet our criteria, they are still getting some type of diversion," Laszewski said of the county attorney.
Ramsey County recently implemented a no-charge policy that deals only with amounts under 42.5 grams.
Freeman's announcement comes as the movement toward marijuana legalization continues and prosecutors across the country are under increasing pressure to express leniency on low-level offenses that critics say are costly, have little impact on crime and disproportionately affect people of color.
Just days before the announcement, Republicans in the state Senate rejected a measure to legalize recreational marijuana.
Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal called Freeman's decision a legitimate use of prosecutorial discretion.
"Instead of using law enforcement as a way to make problems disappear from our view, because people are being hauled off to jail, we should start asking, 'What are people's needs?' " Segal said. "And you get better results: You improve public safety and you get better results for the individuals."
But Mary Moriarty, the county's top public defender, said it was disingenuous for Freeman to declare that he was ending most pot possession prosecutions. The pledge comes with strings attached, she said.
"They will still prosecute cases under 100 grams if somebody has prior convictions, including misdemeanor convictions that're not drug-related," she said late Friday. "You can agree or disagree with his policy, but I think he needs to be transparent about what that policy is."
The debate over low-level marijuana enforcement has also played out in cities like Seattle, Houston and New York, where police announced last summer that they would arrest only users with past arrests or convictions for possession, while others would receive a citation. In Baltimore, the city's top prosecutor announced earlier this year that her office would no longer prosecute any pot possession cases. In response, the acting police commissioner said that his officers would stop making marijuana arrests only if lawmakers moved to legalize possession.
The changes in Minneapolis and elsewhere are a reflection of the growing strength of a crop of new reform-minded prosectors nationwide, according to St. Paul-based defense attorney Paul Applebaum.
"You have a new generation of prosecutors who smoked even more weed than their predecessors did," Applebaum said. It's part of our culture for God sakes, and I think it was demonized for decades and decades and decades and used to lock up people of color, and now I think we've realized that it's not the devil."
Last summer, Minneapolis stopped conducting sting operations targeting low-level marijuana sales downtown after revelations that nearly everyone arrested was black led to accusations of racial profiling. Freeman later pledged to dismiss charges against the 47 people arrested, 46 of whom were black.
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo agreed to end the practice but defended the officers' actions, saying that the disproportionate number of blacks wasn't in and of itself evidence of police bias.
"As chief and as a community member, it troubles me that young black men and women, who look like me, feel that selling marijuana is the only way to survive," he said at the time.
State records show that city police made 543 marijuana-related arrests in 2017, the most recent year for which reliable data are available, a 54 percent drop from 2010. This, as overall crime and arrest rates continue to tumble citywide.
Not everyone is on board with the idea of reducing penalties for possession.
Police union President Lt. Bob Kroll accused the county attorney of pandering to the political left at the expense of public safety.
"Mike Freeman is not fulfilling his duty: His job is to be the chief prosecutor for criminals, he's not a lawmaker — if he wants to become a lawmaker he should run for the Senate or the House," said Kroll, calling marijuana arrests a valuable crime-fighting tool. "Your marijuana dealers are the ones that can put you in contact with opioids, with guns, and oftentimes they carry guns to protect their stash."
Others have said that marijuana transactions are more likely to turn violent than sales involving harder drugs.