An effort by Minnesota’s county attorneys to reform the state’s drug laws hit a dead end at the Capitol after stakeholders clashed over what quantity of drugs would meet the threshold for the most serious offenses.
Despite high hopes that this session would finally bring significant changes to the laws, the deadline for a first hearing of a bipartisan bill crafted by the Minnesota County Attorneys Association passed Friday without the bill being heard.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that the stars couldn’t align, because I thought they were in the midst of aligning,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who was involved with the legislation. “I think it’s really important for the public that all of us stay with this conversation, because it will not and it cannot die on the vine.”
Senate File 1382 was introduced in early March by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and co-authored by Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville. A competing bill, Senate File 773, authored by Hall that called for even greater reform had been in the hopper since February. It was crafted by the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Neither bill received a hearing.
What killed the push for reform is uncertain, but it’s clear that stakeholders couldn’t reach a consensus even though they agreed that current laws, which haven’t changed significantly since the 1990s, could be improved.
The key provision in each bill called for increasing the quantity of drugs an alleged offender possesses to merit the most severe charges. The intent of both bills was to incarcerate major traffickers while finding better ways to deal with low-level, nonviolent addicts — through shorter sentences, probation and treatment.
Driving the bills were shifting perspectives about addiction and concerns about the nation’s crowded prisons. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that long prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses crowd facilities and don’t promote public safety.
In 2014, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger answered Holder’s call to re-examine such drug sentences.
Choi and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman met with the state’s county attorneys last year and hammered out a bill in six months that also called for funneling savings into rehabilitation and treatment, a key priority for Choi.
“Those people who possess large amounts [of drugs] for sale suffer from the disease of greed, and the answer to their problem isn’t treatment, but the big house,” Freeman said. “And the question is always where to draw the line.”
When Latz’s bill was introduced, there was backlash from police and sheriffs who hadn’t been consulted as thoroughly — if at all — as they had wished.
“It really does not represent law enforcement’s best interest,” said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
The Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association also had concerns.
Latz’s bill increased the weight threshold for charging first-degree sale of “a narcotic other than heroin” from the current 10 grams to a proposed 35 grams. For charging first-degree possession, it proposed increasing the weight from 25 to 50 grams.
Under the bill, second-degree sale would be 10 grams or more instead of 3 grams. Second-degree possession would have gone from 6 grams to 25 grams.
It also added provisions to allow stiffer sentences when aggravating factors existed.
Flaherty said that a better compromise for charging first-degree sale is 25 grams, because a higher threshold puts police in danger by requiring them to make more drug buys to build a case.
The defense lawyers’ bill would have returned to weight thresholds established in Minnesota in the late 1980s — 50 grams for first-degree sale and 500 grams, about a pound, for first-degree possession.