By Pat Kessler

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A State Senate committee approved sweeping changes to Minnesota drug laws on Friday.

Some of those changes would lower the penalties for drug possession.

Minnesota has some of the toughest drug penalties in the country. This could be the biggest overhaul of Minnesota’s drug laws in a generation.

Almost half of Minnesota’s prison population is made up of non-violent offenders, many of them addicted drug users — repeat offenders convicted for small amounts.

Minnesota lawmakers are looking at ways to keep thousands of people out of prison by raising the minimum thresholds for drug arrests.

What used to send someone to prison might now result in chemical dependency treatment instead.

“I didn’t need a long prison sentence to become the woman I am today. I needed compassion. I needed community support,” said Mariah Wilberg of St. Paul.

The bill increases the drug amount needed to be charged with a felony. It also eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for some prior convictions.

That’s not OK with many law enforcement officers.

“No deal for drug dealers,” said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek says more people in this country die from drug overdoses than car crashes.

He also predicts this year more heroin will be confiscated than in the previous five.

“Raising the drug thresholds only increases the amount of drugs on the streets and in yours and my communities across the great state of Minnesota,” said Stanek.

State lawmakers are deciding this year how to ease Minnesota’s overcrowded prisons.

They could build a new one — or find new ways to deal with the drug epidemic.

“My own belief is that as long as there is a demand, there will be a supply. And we should focus more resources on curbing that demand,” said Sen. Ron Latz.

Latz’s drug sentencing reform bill has the support of an unusual coalition of conservative and liberal groups.

But it’s running into stiff opposition in the House, so its future is uncertain.