Minnesota legislators and criminal justice leaders have struck a deal on what could be the most significant reforms to the state’s drug laws in decades.
The proposal came after months of closed-door discussions between lawmakers and various interest groups, such as law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys. If passed, it would lower penalties for some high-level drug offenses and provide more room in the law to discern between “kingpin” drug dealers and severe addicts.
“It’s become very clear that trying to address drug use and addiction by just locking people up is ineffective and often even counterproductive,” said Mark Haase, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who was involved in the negotiations. “And this legislation will go a long way toward getting us to start looking at these issues in a different way.”
The deal would reduce the recommended prison sentence for first-degree sale and possession of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine from seven years to five-plus years.
For meth and cocaine, it would raise the minimum weight to qualify for high-level charges. For example, first-degree sale of these drugs would now be defined as 17 grams — up from the current 10 grams — unless the offender had “aggravating factors,” such as possession of a firearm or selling drugs to benefit a gang.
It would also drop the sentence for second-degree drug sale from four years in prison to four years on probation for heroin, cocaine and meth.
The proposal would also stiffen marijuana laws. Right now, a first-degree charge is defined as selling 50 kilograms or possessing 100 kilograms. Those would both be cut in half. Second-degree charges would similarly change.
State Public Defender William Ward said law enforcement officials wanted to change the marijuana threshold because they thought it was too high. He said the new weight limits are still substantial — 50 kilograms equals about 110 pounds.
Changes to the state’s drug sentencing laws were initially recommended by the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission, and would have been automatically adopted unless the Legislature moved to stop them. Cornish introduced a bill rejecting the commission’s reform proposal. Although he wasn’t involved in the recent discussions, Cornish said he plans to support the compromise.
“This is reform with balance,” he said. “It is much better than the original recommendations from the Sentencing Guidelines Commission. This came about because of the GOP’s initial bill that is on the House floor, which was a total rejection of the guidelines. This forced us to come together and take a better look at this whole report. I will support this agreement.”
‘Tough road’ to compromise
Many involved in the deal said drug reform was long overdue in Minnesota, but finding common ground among groups with competing interests proved a difficult task.
“The negotiations have been challenging,” said Latz. “We had some tough road to cover before we could find common ground, but you know, we’re elected to do the hard work.”
Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said no one left with everything they wanted, but “there’s a little bit for everybody in the bill.”
The discussions began in February. For law enforcement, the priority was to keep stiff penalties for high-level drug dealers. Flaherty said the proposal accomplishes that by mandating minimum three-year sentences for offenders convicted of first-degree sale or possession and also caught with a firearm.
“The outcome will not provide lesser sentencing for people who sell dope,” said Flaherty.
Latz said his goal was to maintain serious penalties for drug dealers, but find a way for the state to stop sentencing addicts to long prison sentences that often serve as criminal “finishing schools” for people who belong in drug treatment facilities.
“It treats the addicts as addicts and it treats the drug sellers who are doing this to make money as criminals,” Latz said of the deal.
The proposal still has a long way to go in order to pass the Legislature, but Latz and others were optimistic that it will succeed with bipartisan support.
“Obviously, we have to count the votes,” he said. “But this is a really well-balanced proposal.”
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who was also involved in the discussions, said he was proud that the group could come to the compromise and believes the reform “will lead to more public safety for everyone.”
“Of course we didn’t get everything that we wanted, but the nature of a compromise is you can’t get everything that you want,” said Choi.
The group will officially introduce the proposal at 10 a.m. Friday at the Senate Office Building.