While some people use the word legalization interchangeably with decriminalization, which is a mistake, others don’t acknowledge the massive policy and human cost the difference between the two makes. in 2016 alone, nearly 9,000 Minnesotans are arrested for cannabis-related charges, and many face jail time as a consequence of this “War on Drugs”. Countless others are given a just a ticket and face no jail time, but still wind up with a court record for cannabis possession. The difference lies in how Minnesota has chosen to define what cannabis possession is a “crime” and what is is simply “illegal”.
A crime is defined by Minnesota statute as “conduct which is prohibited by statute and for which the actor may be sentenced to imprisonment, with or without a fine.” Minn. Stat. 609.02 Subd. 1. These are ranked by severity of offense and paired with a term of jail time and limits on fines. The state applies these penalties in misdemeanor cases (no more than 90 days and/or $1000 fine), gross misdemeanor cases (no more than 1 year and/or $3,000 fine), and felony cases (more than a year). Id. The statue takes a quick turn and defines another class of “illegal” activities not constituting a “crime”. Those things, petty misdemeanors, are what politicians may or may not be referring to when they talk about decriminalization.
What may be news, but shouldn’t be, is that Minnesota already decriminalized cannabis possession. This is not a recent development, as Minnesota passed decriminalization measures in 1976 in response to growing public discourse and law enforcement frustrations with criminalization. Decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota currently means that possession of less than 42.5 grams (slightly more than 1.5 ounces) will result in a ticket instead of a crime. If you have 43 grams of cannabis, however, you are a felon. If you have over a quarter gram of concentrate like wax or shatter, you are a felon. If you have hashish, you are a felon. If you have 43 grams of cannabis infused brownies, or other mixtures, now you are a felon. Sale of any amount? Felon. Take money given to you by a friend to buy cannabis and give it to them? Felon.
While Minnesota’s convoluted rabbit hole of laws goes much deeper into the
ways it punishes people for choosing a safer alternative to legal substances like alcohol, decriminalization has helped a bit. Legalization means it is no longer illegal to possess or sell cannabis, and money and exchanges flow through channels the government sees as legitimate. The government’s stance with decriminalization still sends people through dangerous channels to obtain cannabis without the protections a legal and regulated market provide. Under decriminalization a parent can have their custody pulled; a person can be refused medical treatment; a student can be denied enrollment; an employee can be fired; a tenant can be made homeless. All for what is seen a safe political stance of “decriminalization,” when the real alternatives are legalization or the continuance of the “War on Drugs”.
Legalization is much preferable to the continued criminalization and collateral consequences that result under decriminalization. Tax revenue can be allocated to much needed areas whereas decriminalization leaves business in the hands of criminal enterprises. By legalizing cannabis for everything from growing to sale, the money generated from tax revenue (and the money saved on policing) can provide much needed funding for education, public safety, and other beneficial programs. Police can spend their time chasing real criminals rather than policing antiquated 1930’s-esque laws. Legalization should also address Issues with medical treatment, employment, education, housing, and other collateral issues for adults using cannabis responsibly.
What does a political hopeful mean when they say they do not want to legalize marijuana but would rather decriminalize it in this state? Do they simply want more than an ounce and a half as a civil penalty? Do they want sale and cultivation to be civil penalties? Decriminalization is much more common than legalization but more of the same is absolutely not the answer.
This law firm hopes for a day when possession and sale charges are things of the past.