When it comes to marijuana possession, there’s a thin green line between paying a small fine and doing some hard time.
Under current law, possession of 42.5 grams (about 1.5 ounces) or less of marijuana is a petty misdemeanor. But getting busted with an amount just over that threshold can mean facing felony charges.
That instant jump from decriminalization to felony doesn’t make sense, said Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-Mpls). He sponsors HF2013 that would add two levels of offenses—misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor—for possessing varying amounts above the current 42.5-gram threshold.
The bill was laid over Tuesday by the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division for possible omnibus bill inclusion. It has no Senate companion.
The bill would keep the current penalty for possession of 42.5 grams of marijuana or less a petty misdemeanor; but would make possession of more than 42.5 grams, but not more than 100 grams, a misdemeanor; and possession of more than 100 grams, but not more than 250 grams, a gross misdemeanor. Possessing more than 250 grams would be a felony.
"The amount of time received for cannabis offenses does not fit the crime,” Dehn said at a press conference prior to the bill’s hearing.
The bill would also establish varying penalties for the sale of marijuana: sale of 5 grams or less being a petty misdemeanor; sale of more than 5 grams, but not more than 10 grams being a misdemeanor; sale of more than 10 grams but less than 42.5 grams being a gross misdemeanor; and sale of more than 42.5 grams being a felony.
Due to heavy court loads, Hennepin County rarely charges any cases of marijuana possession of under 100 grams for first time offenders, said Deputy County Attorney David Brown.
Instead, the attorneys he manages in the criminal division typically seek pre-charge diversion to community service and other rehabilitation programs. Such steps, he said, save taxpayer money and reduce jail overcrowding.
Dehn said that a motivation for change is the racial disparities in prosecuting marijuana offenses. He cited a study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota revealing that although blacks and whites use marijuana at equal rates, an African American individual was 11.5 times more likely to be arrested by Minneapolis police than a white person for marijuana possession between 2004 and 2012.
“This bill would go a long way to undoing some of the harm that’s been done over the past 30 to 40 years by the war on drugs,” Dehn said.
Brandan Borgos, co-founder of Sensible Minnesota, said his group would not support the bill unless it would also lower the penalties for the resinous or concentrated form of marijuana. Possession of marijuana in these forms is currently a felony in Minnesota, he said, and that situation has also disproportionately affected people of color.