In debate over legal marijuana, Minnesota lawmakers consider forgiveness

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If lawmakers legalize recreational marijuana this year, tens of thousands of Minnesotans are poised for forgiveness.

Under legalization bills introduced in the House and Senate, Minnesota would offer to clear people who have been convicted of possessing up to an ounce and a half of marijuana, as well as possession in a motor vehicle.

That could wipe clean the records of nearly 70,000 Minnesotans since 2010 alone, according to data the district courts provided to MPR News. But the total number is likely much higher: the bill directs the attorney general to go back indefinitely to find anyone with petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses on their record who could be eligible for expungement.

"People who have been hurt, whether they are in their 60s now or in their 20s, are still having the same obstacles of housing, ability to get a job and to have the opportunities that other citizens have," said Sen Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, the author of the bill. "We should take into account that they shouldn't be punished for something that is now legal."

Expungement is a small — but for many, significant — part of the debate to make recreational marijuana legal in Minnesota, a step that supporters say will start the process of repairing communities across the state that have been torn apart by the Drug War and decades of disparities in enforcing marijuana-related crimes. Franzen's bill is scheduled for its first committee hearing in the Senate on Monday.

Under the bill, all individuals eligible for expungement would have their records sealed, including information about any arrest, indictment, verdict or trial before Aug. 1, 2019.

Even for lower-level offenses, possession charges or an arrest can be a barrier for people applying for jobs or housing, said Josh Esmay, an attorney with the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, who runs a free walk-in clinic to help people trying to clear convictions from their records.

"It can be one misconception that people can have, that even the small types of cases won't have a huge impact," he said. "They do still show up on background checks and they do make the difference between landing a job and not landing a job."

It's an issue that disproportionately impacts minority communities, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, which found black people in Minnesota were nearly 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite comparable usage rates between black and white Americans.

But some argue the expungement piece of the bill doesn't go far enough, especially under state laws that quickly escalate from a misdemeanor offense to a felony.

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Possession of marijuana of up to an ounce and a half is a petty misdemeanor with a $200 fine and possible drug education plan. But possessing just a gram or two more is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

"We're talking about a pretty big universe of people who are sitting in prison or sitting on a felony conviction," said Teresa Nelson of the ACLU. "If this passes they will be sitting in prison for something that we have legalized. To not talk about overturning felony convictions, I think is problematic."

And more doors close to someone with a felony on their record.

Kiersten Carroll, 23, hardly noticed a petty misdemeanor for marijuana possession on her record, but her life changed after she was pulled over with a small amount of marijuana wax, roughly the size of half an eraser on a pencil. The threshold for possession of concentrated forms of marijuana is lower, and Carroll was facing a felony charge.

She got a lawyer and ended up with five years of probation instead of a felony conviction on her record, but it still showed up on a background check. She was one semester into nursing school at Normandale Community College when she was asked to leave the program. She was told she could try to apply again in seven years.

Under the bill to legalize marijuana, her petty misdemeanor charge would be forgiven, but not the felony arrest.

"It was pretty devastating because I spent so much time and so much money doing clinicals," Carroll said. "And even getting into nursing school these days, because it's so competitive, that was a huge accomplishment for me, just to have all that go down the toilet."

Mark Haase, an attorney and member of Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, said marijuana sales must be part of the conversation too, pointing to the small-scale busts that took place in Minneapolis last summer that led to dozens of arrests, mostly of young black men who sold small amounts of marijuana to undercover cops.

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office has said it will dismiss most of those charges, but there are still plenty of other people in prison for small-scale felony sale convictions.

"You have the person who was downtown Minneapolis this summer who an undercover police officer offered $20 for marijuana and they sold it to them, and that's a felony," Haase said. "Then you have someone who has an operation and there's some violent activity associated with it, and that's also a felony."

Some legislators think now is the time to start talking about changing those penalties, regardless of whether legislators legalize recreational marijuana. Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, has introduced a bill to create a task force to look at the impacts of legalizing recreational marijuana, including expungements and the thresholds for marijuana-related offenses. And Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, has introduced a bill to increase the thresholds that trigger felony possession or sale crimes.

"While we're going through this process of what Minnesota's future will be relative to ending the prohibition on cannabis, it will also allow us to address some of the inequities that have happened over the past several decades relative to the War on Drugs," Dehn said.

Gov. Tim Walz and Democrats in the House support looking at expungement and marijuana penalties. And the idea could draw support in the Republican-controlled Senate, which has so far been cool to the idea legalizing recreational marijuana.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has said he's open to discussing changing penalties for low-level marijuana possession offenses, but less open to full legalization.

"I don't really want people going to prison for using marijuana," he said. "Those are kind of the two sides of it, and I think there will be different discussions on both of them. And it's possible that one might move forward and the other might not."

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