ST. PAUL, MINN. (WCCO) — A bill that would legalize recreational marijuana use for adults is nearing a full House floor vote — the farthest a proposal like this has ever advanced in the legislature.

In the DFL’s quest to approve the proposal, the focus during a public hearing on Tuesday shifted to the potential impact on the criminal justice system.

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Supporters say the bill would shrink the divide between how Black and white Minnesotans are treated for possessing marijuana.

A 2020 report from the ACLU of Minnesota shows the state ranks eighth for largest racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests. The analysis also found Black people in the state are 5.4 times more likely to be arrested than white Minnesotans.

“Our effort as a society and as a state to use the criminal justice system to ban, prohibit and criminalize cannabis is a public policy failure,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

The bill passed its ninth House committee on a 11-7 vote Tuesday. Winkler said it will be reviewed by three other committees before moving to the House floor, likely the first week of May.

 

(credit: CBS)

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Isaiah Shivers testified during the hearing a 36-month sentence in prison he completed is still impacting his life today. 

“Prison affected my employment, obviously, once I got released,” he said. “Home, trying to find homes. Basically affected my whole lifestyle [and] lost contact with children and family as well.”

People like Shivers could be eligible for automatic expungement of low-level, misdemeanor cannabis offenses under the proposal.  A new board established to specifically review cannabis expungement would review felony convictions on a case-by-case basis.

Law enforcement officials expressed concern over potential increased addiction, citing health effects listed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and traffic safety due to impaired driving

Marijuana can significantly impair judgment, motor coordination and reaction time, according to the National Institutes of Health. But the federal medical research agency notes one large study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that found no significant crash risk attributable to cannabis.

Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson told lawmakers that there is no road-side test to analyze if someone is operating a vehicle under the influence of marijuana, similar to a breathalyzer with alcohol, which could be problematic for enforcement.

He also pointed to traffic death data for 2021 tabulated by the Department of Public Safety showing that the state hit 100 deaths this year much sooner than any of the previous six years, though officials have not said driving under the influence of a substance like cannabis contributed to those statistics.

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“If law enforcement does not have a tool to provide roadside tests, if there is no way to roadside test, then you’re only going to create more dangerous roads,” Torgerson said.

Caroline Cummings