The Minnesota House late Friday unanimously approved a compromise bill that would overhaul state drug laws, prioritizing crackdowns on "kingpin" drug dealers and helping addicts seek treatment.

The Senate had given previous approval to the measure, voting 45-19. The measure now heads back to the Senate where it is expected to pass and then head to Gov. Mark Dayton. The governor has previously indicated he would sign the measure if stakeholders had a consensus. 

Legislators had hotly debated the drug overhaul but many said they opposed changes recommended by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelenes Commision that would have become law without legislative action.

"A number of us thought it went too far," said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center.

If the measure passes, it would be one of the most significant reforms to Minnesota’s criminal justice system in about three decades, and accomplish something legislators and criminal justice experts have debated for years.

By diverting some into treatment, the measure would free up more than 600 prison beds over time, said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the bill's Senate sponsor. Latz has said he wants to take the money saved on imprisoning fewer people and put it toward drug treatment and other rehabilitative services.

Among the most dramatic changes in the proposal would be reducing the recommended prison sentence for first-degree sale and possession of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine from seven years to slightly more than five years.

The proposal would raise the minimum weight to qualify for high-level charges for meth and cocaine. For instance, a first-degree sale would be redefined as 17 grams — up from the current 10 grams.

However, the law would give harsher penalties for offenders also arrested with certain “aggravating factors,” such as being caught with a firearm, selling across state lines or dealing to benefit a gang. The deal would drop the sentence for second-degree drug sale from four years in prison to four years on probation for heroin, cocaine and meth.

It would broaden the scope of drug offenders eligible for an early release program that allows well-behaved inmates who complete a rigorous boot-camp program to get out of prison early. It also would crack down on offenders caught with large quantities of marijuana.

Under the current law, a first-degree charge is defined as selling 50 kilograms or possessing 100 kilograms. Those would both be cut in half, and second-degree charges would similarly change. 

Star Tribune staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report. 

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