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Q&A on Marijuana Reform and Legalization

April 22, 2014 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

When blacks in Minnesota are 6.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, long-term collateral costs escalate significantly. Such disparities strip community wealth and exacerbate equity gaps for individuals and neighborhoods in communities of color.

Over-policing communities of color and seizure policies that incentivize volume over quality in drug arrests are major factors for the disparity.

We must start an honest discussion about reforming marijuana laws that includes full legalization.

Under what circumstance should we fully legalize marijuana in Minnesota?

Short of full legalization, what reforms would put economic and social justice back into the criminal justice system?

Join us Tuesday between 8-9:30 for a discussion with Nicole Simms, Minnesota 2020 fellow and author of our most recent report highlighting disparities in marijuana enforcement.


Post your comments or questions in the box below, scroll down to see the ongoing conversation, and use "refresh" to see new comments.

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  • Rachel says:

    April 21, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Nicole’s report—Collateral Costs: Racial Disparities and Injustice in Minnesota’s Marijuana Laws—can be found here:

  • David Olson says:

    April 22, 2014 at 7:44 am

    How has “The War On Drugs” been going?  Only reason we continue the campaign is it provides tons of jobs and economic activity!  Never mind the taxpayer who has to pay for it!  Think the tables are about to turn the next election cycle.  The voter is pissed “and not gonna take it any more”!

    • Nicole Simms says:

      April 22, 2014 at 8:06 am

      Hi David. The costs associated with enforcing marijuana laws in Minnesota have been looked at in a few studies. One study estimated that in 2006, it cost the state $137 to enforce all marijuana laws, and another (from the ACLU) estimated enforcing possession laws alone cost $42 million in 2010. These are estimates, and they are certainly an important part of the conversation, but in the report, we wanted to shift the focus to the individual costs associated with the War on Drugs.

  • Leann M. Udesen says:

    April 22, 2014 at 7:57 am

    Any substance such as food, alcohol, prescriptions, cigarettes, and the list goes on can be used in an abusive manner. Marijuana is less harmful than many legalized substances. Full legalization would create a tax revenue stream, take the money out of the drug trafficking, reduce law enforcement and national investment in trying to locate and destroy crops. Up start business such as those found in states with legalization presently would provide clean substances, hybrids which address different needs, and generate money which stays in the community. Full legalization should happen in all states.

    • Nicole Simms says:

      April 22, 2014 at 8:11 am

      Hi Leann. I agree that legalization should be at least considered here. It would basically eliminate the individual collateral costs associated with an arrest or conviction for marijuana possession, which would reduce the impact the racial disparity in arrests has on people of color. However, the state still has a broader problem when it comes to racial disparities in arrests (as well as in many other other areas). We obviously can’t make criminal activity legal wherever a racial disparity in arrest/conviction/incarceration exists, but in this case, we need to ask ourselves if the harm associated with enforcement outweighs the harm associated with the “criminal” activity.

  • Nicole Simms says:

    April 22, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Good morning, this is Nicole Simms - I’m a 2020 Fellow, and I wrote the report “Collateral Costs: Racial Disparities and Injustice in Minnesota’s Marijuana Laws.” We are hopeful the report will spark a conversation between lawmakers, law enforcement, community organizations, and citizens regarding Minnesota’s racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests, and what can be done about it. Your thoughts, stories, questions, and suggestions are much appreciated.

  • Joe says:

    April 22, 2014 at 8:17 am

    Let’s take a look at the social just angle of this issue. Nicole your report highlights a number of policies/laws we can enact in short term to cut down on collateral costs in communities of color. Tell us about a few.

    • Nicole Simms says:

      April 22, 2014 at 8:26 am

      While the report is primarily intended to shed light on the significant racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests, we do offer some recommendations about how we might be able to move forward in addressing this issue.

      As I mentioned above, the legalization of marijuana for personal use is one way to remove the collateral costs associated with an arrest for possession. But short of that, there are other initiatives that could help to minimize the collateral costs of an arrest. Reforming the state’s civil forfeiture laws so that property can’t be seized without a conviction is one. So is making it easier for people to have their criminal records expunged, so an arrest doesn’t haunt their efforts to secure housing and employment for years. The legalization of medical marijuana would at least ensure that those who are using it for medical purposes don’t bear the costs of an arrest. These individuals are actually more likely to get caught with marijuana, since they may bring it with them when they leave the home to manage the symptoms of their illnesses.  These reforms are all being discussed in the legislature this year.

      • Nicole Simms says:

        April 22, 2014 at 8:35 am

        We also have to take a look at the police practices that might be contributing to the racial bias in arrests. Having greater coordination and transparency in law enforcement record keeping would help us better understand why these disparities occur. Developing more rigorous training programs on racial bias would also be helpful.

        Federal funding for drug task forces also needs to be assessed - currently, it arguably incentivizes large numbers of low-level drug arrests, regardless of the quality of the arrest (that is, regardless of whether there is actually enough evidence to lead to a conviction).

  • Lynnell Mickelsen says:

    April 22, 2014 at 8:18 am

    Thanks for the research, MN2020 and the focus on this issue.

    Most of my white friends are shocked when I tell them that blacks and whites use marijuana at the same rates and also DEAL marijuana at the same rates (at least according to Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”) Most white friends I talk to are convinced that blacks deal marijuana more, which partially accounts for the higher arrest ratios.

    My understanding is that the dealing rates between blacks and whites are also the same. Did you find any Minnesota data that supports or disproves this?

    As I recall, if you go beyond the arrest rates and look at the incarceration rates based on possession, the disparity rates are even higher. Do you have any data about that?

    Again, thanks for the research and calling this issue out.  I think the general public needs to be hit over the head with the data again and again and called to action.

    Regarding legalization: I don’t use drugs—-not out of any great virtue on my part—I just don’t enjoy being high on drugs. But at this point, I’m totally done with the “War on Drugs.” I’ve watched this war for three decades -plus.  According to Alexander’s book, at any time, 10 percent of the US population is using iillegal drugs. Yet the enforcement focus is almost entirely on people of color. It’s nuts.

    Prohibition doesn’t work. Never has. Never will. So I say legalize all drugs. Regulate them. Tax the hell out of them. Then take all that new drug tax revenue and all the money we currently put into prisons and enforcement and put it into treatment and public awareness campaigns.  So many lives would be saved—in this country, in Mexico and around the world.

    But I’m a realist. I don’t think blanket legalization will happen any time soon.

    As a first step, though, we should follow Colorado’s lead and fully legalize marijuana here. This is a situation where the public opinion is moving ahead of politicians.

    • Nicole Simms says:

      April 22, 2014 at 8:50 am

      Hi Lynnel. I don’t have any dealing specific data, but I can tell you that when it comes to arrests for the sale of marijuana, the racial disparity decreases pretty significantly: while blacks are 6.4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, they are only 1.6 times more likely to be arrested for sale (which includes growing). This suggests similar dealing rates among blacks and whites.

      When it comes to incarceration, I don’t have marijuana-specific incarceration data. According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, about 17% of inmates are confined for drug-related offenses. Law enforcement officials have gone on record claiming that few people actually go to jail for marijuana possession - many are diverted into the drug court system, which substitutes treatment for jail time. Some racial disparities have been found with respect to the successful completion of drug court programs, with minorities less likely to succeed (and therefore to be sent back into criminal court) because they often lack the socio-economic resources and supports that are key to success in treatment programs.

      Moreover, not everyone is eligible for drug court, usually because a criminal record already exists. Minnesota has the fifth highest number of people on probation in the nation, which means that a person on probation for a previous crime who is caught with marijuana could be incarcerated.

      There are certainly racial disparities in our prison population - the Council on Crime and Justice puts the Black:White prison ratio at 25:1. However, since a incarceration may follow a marijuana arrest in combination with some other crime, it is hard to say to what extent that disparity is related to marijuana alone. What we can surmise is that since blacks are 6.4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession, they are at least 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated.

  • Mark Manthey says:

    April 22, 2014 at 8:33 am

    In terms of reform, I believe there should be a full investigation of the activities of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) in terms of lobbying done for the benefit of the for-profit prison industry. While this is tangential to the issue of marijuana legislation per se, it bears directly on the issues of social justice. In most cases, corporations are writing these laws, not our elected officials.

    • Nicole Simms says:

      April 22, 2014 at 9:10 am

      Hi Mark. This is certainly a multi-faceted issue, and we need to consider the institutional practices and imperatives that are producing racial disparities in arrests, convictions, and incarcerations at a range of scales.

    • Nicole Simms says:

      April 22, 2014 at 9:10 am

      Hi Mark. This is certainly a multi-faceted issue, and we need to consider the institutional practices and imperatives that are producing racial disparities in arrests, convictions, and incarcerations at a range of scales.

  • Joshua says:

    April 22, 2014 at 8:42 am

    Thank you for your research and for bringing this topic back to the table for discussion.  There have been periodic research efforts into disparities within the state of Minnesota, particularly within the criminal justice system, for over a decade, a number of which you cite in the full report.  Why do you think these issues are returning to the forefront now, both locally and nationally?  Is there something “in the air” (no pun intended) that has this on people’s minds (legislators, service providers, legal professionals, etc.)  Finally, do you feel like there is an inevitable movement (nationally) towards a fundamental rejection of the “War on Drugs”?  and a tide change regarding legalization(in one form or another) and treatment vs. incarceration?

    • Nicole Simms says:

      April 22, 2014 at 9:20 am

      Hi Joshua. A major source of inspiration for this report was a report put out by the ACLU called “The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests.” The ACLU documented the racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests across the nation, and Minnesota was one of the top offenders. We wanted to take this research further to try to better understand the racial disparity in our state, and what it actually means for individual residents. As marijuana becomes legalized (either medically or for personal use) across the U.S., I think it becomes harder to justify the high costs to individuals that result from a marijuana possession arrest.

      I also think the tide is turning a little bit with respect to the broader issue of racial injustice. For example, the Minnesota Department of Health recently released a report on health disparities in Minnesota where they cite racial disparities in many areas - employment, income, education, housing, and health - and pretty boldly assert that these are the result of persistent structural racism in this state. Perhaps the glaring racial disparities in Minnesota are just becoming too hard to ignore. What are your thoughts on why these issues are getting more attention?

  • j. amato says:

    April 22, 2014 at 8:45 am

    Analysis and thought should meet a fact.  Not conclusions and calls for and plans of actions!  Why does this occur?  Which blacks? Where in the state? Age/ place of arrest/ associated records and arrest conditions. Who are they compared with?  Other states, groups, races, ethnicity, prison records, etc.  People want to have opinions before they know what they are talking about.

    joseph amato

    • Nicole Simms says:

      April 22, 2014 at 9:04 am

      Hi j. The report does offer some regional analysis of the racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests. Statewide, blacks are 6.4 times more likely than whites to be arrested, but this varies by counties. The counties with the highest disparities are Ramsey (8.8), Hennepin (6.4), and Steele (6.4). In fact, every Minnesota county with a population over 30,000 and a black population of over 2% exhibited a disparity, and many were well above the national disparity of 3.05.

      In terms of age, most marijuana arrests (70%) are of people under 25, but I don’t have that data in relation to race. The FBI statistics used offers discrete information on arrests by gender, age and race only.

      Interestingly, I don’t even know if law enforcement officials could easily give you answers to these questions. I spoke with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office to try to get a better understanding of why the disparity is so high in that county, and their Public Information Officer mentioned that without a coordinated record-keeping system, it was very difficult to comment on possession arrests as a whole. Ramsey County is in the process of developing one county-wide record keeping system, but they currently use four systems across their nine law enforcement agencies. This makes it hard to get the kind of data you are requesting, and which we very much need in order to better understand the nature of the racial disparity in arrests we are seeing.

  • Nikki says:

    April 22, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Nicole: Your report was very interesting. Did you interview any law enforcement people that resist decriminalization because marijuana possession laws are a tool for pressuring people to become informants? You analyzed direct costs, but sometimes the results of a simple marijuana arrest can drag on for years with continued police coercion. It is so rampant in North Minneapolis, it makes it impossible to imagine what reforms would put economic and social justice back into the criminal justice system - short of full legalization.

    • Nicole Simms says:

      April 22, 2014 at 8:56 am

      Hi Nikki. The report was really designed to get a sense of what the disparity is, how it manifests across the state, and what it means for individuals in both the short and long term. We’re hoping it will spark further investigation into the kinds of issues you raise. Legalization is definitely one way to deal with the disparity, but unfortunately, it won’t address the reason(s) why the disparity exists in the first place, and we obviously can’t legalize all criminal activity, even through racial disparities persist in other areas as well. It’s crucial that we address the issue of structural racism in this state, regardless of whether or not we legalize marijuana for personal use.

      • Nikki says:

        April 22, 2014 at 9:07 am

        Thanks, Nicole. Yes, it is crucial.

  • Stanley Gardner says:

    April 22, 2014 at 9:15 am

    It is my understanding that narijuana is a gateway drug. Are there any studies that suggest that is not true or are the studies suggesting that it is!

    • Nicole Simms says:

      April 22, 2014 at 9:27 am

      Hi Stanley,

      There are studies that suggest both, but many, many studies have discounted the notion that marijuana is a gateway drug. Most of these have concluded that even though people who eventually use harder drugs (including prescription drugs) often use marijuana first, correlation does not equal cause. According to the most recent Gallup poll, around 40% of Americans report having tried marijuana at least once. Marijuana is simply the most common of illegal drugs - a lot of people will try it - only some will go on to use other drugs.

  • Tim Brausen says:

    April 22, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Legalization should be done as in Colorado, fully legalized use with taxation and quality control.  It would free up valuable court and corrections resources to address much more serious issues.  And we can hope that it would be a small step toward addressing the racial inequities in the way our court’s deal with defendants of color.

    Let’s devote more resources to stopping distracted driving, a practice that kills as many Minnesotans as drunk drivers.  There’s no excuse for tolerating such dangerous behavior.

  • Nikki says:

    April 22, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Nicole, is there any evidence or even suggestion that legalization will lead to increased use? I don’t use marijuana now and won’t if it is legalized. Most people I know express the same sentiment.

  • Dan Veghead says:

    April 22, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Her eis the thing,  its been discussed in many states,  we have no insight or even culture(say 40-50 yrs of cultivating medicine)  So why are we being the passive Minnesotan now?    End this hypocrisy
    I just want my medicine & I m sick of traveling for my ailments.  Dayton,  you are losing young liberals (im 43) 

  • Nikki says:

    April 22, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    Someone must know who I am, as I got this sent to me offline:
    Journal of Adolescent Health study says legal medical marijuana has no impact on adolescent use.

  • Matthew Limpert says:

    April 24, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    1. My legal opinion is that ” marijuana is illegal federally. If we can vote locally against the Federal law and not follow it, than we can just vote out Obama care, and not follow it as well. Just because a federal law is not enforced does not mean it is legal. Want it legal repeal it! 

    2. Police are probably profiling the black neighborhoods just on the basis that their is more crime overall. This would naturally result in more marijuana convictions.  In other words more convictions overall, means more marijuana convictions. Duh…

    3. Do we want to be known as the “I’m so wasted” state? Colorado is a joke. A free for all in the pot world. Also they have refined marijuana to a form of pure THC known as shatter. more THC than in even the best joint.

    4. As far as medical use, the only thing medical marijuana helps is if someone has a bad case of over ambition. It will cure that right up. I’m 46 years old now, and from the age of 17 to 25 I was high every day and I can safely say there is no medical use for it that another FDA approved drug could work as well without the high.

    5. Don’t we have enough problems with our children and schooling, without adding another stimulant for them to get there hands on? At least when it is illegal the halfway decent parent that may smoke would hide it from there children.

    6. Why would this article even talk about legalization of marijuana. That has nothing to do with racism, or more blacks being arrested. It sounds like your trying to pull marijuana into it for some other purpose.

  • Jack Shepard says:

    May 17, 2014 at 10:16 am

    A Vote for Jack Shepard is a Vote for Minnesota to legalizes, tax and regulate Marijuana*
    Jack Shepard is an Official U.S Senate Candidate from the IP of Minnesota; & will be on the ballot in the Minnesota August 12,  Primary Election for the U.S. Senate:
    the Platform of the IP of Minnesota article 11: say
    11)  That our state legalizes, taxes and regulations Marijuana.
    Jack Shepard’s Official U.S Senate web site is
    “I; JACK SHEPARD AM NOW AN OFFICIAL U. S. SENATE CANDIDATE FROM THE INDEPENDENCE PARTY OF MINNESOTA IN THE UPCOMING AUGUST 12, MINNESOTA PRIMARY ELECTION. A VOTE FOR JACK SHEPARD IS THE ONLY WAY YOU USE TO STAND UP AND BE COUNTED AS A PERSON WHO IS IN FAVOR FOR MINNESOTA TO LEGALIZES, TAX AND REGULATE MARIJUANA. YOUR VOTE FOR JACK SHEPARD, IS NOT A VOTE FOR JACK SHEPARD BUT A VOTE SAYING WE SUPPORT THE LEGISLATION OF MARIJUANA IN MINNESOTA!” New Medical Marijuana law just passed “The proposal sets up a limited system of production and distribution of marijuana that supporters and critics alike called more restrictive than any of the 21 states that currently authorize access to medical marijuana.” And presently there is not one company that can produce such a product and the other question, is it even economically worth it for a company to invest so much money and time into a product with such a very limited number of patients” making the Legalization of Marijuana in Minnesota even more important”

  • Jack Shepard says:

    June 15, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    Jack Shepard is a United States Senate Candidate from the Independence Party of Minnesota, who hope to become the First Untied States Senator who is part Native American.

    In am proud and honored that after my mother passed away 18 years ago but before she died we had many long talks, and during one of these talks she handed me this photo, seen in the lower left page of an article published about my first run for the U.S. Senate way back in 2002. My mother “Della Shepard” explained to me that her father “Ben Bratters” mother was named Jenny, and she was a Sioux Indian.

    That makes me Jack Shepard 12.5% Sioux; which I am very proud and honored to be. “A Real Minnesotan” The Sioux were the first Native American to settle in North America. The term can refer to any ethnic group within the Great Sioux Nation. The Santee (Isáŋyathi; “Knife”), also called Eastern Dakota, reside in the extreme east of Minnesota. The Yankton and Yanktonai (Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋ and Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna; “Village-at-the-end” and “Little village-at-the-end”), collectively also referred to as the Western Dakota or by the endonym Wičhíyena, reside in the Minnesota River area. They are considered to be the middle Sioux; I think this is the branch of Great Sioux Nation my great grandmother came from.

    If I win my August 12, 2014 Primary Election of my Party the Independence of Minnesota, and I am elected in Nov. 4, 2014 General Election to be Minnesota’s first U.S. Senator with Sioux blood I will work to help end the unjust poverty and suffering of my Native Americans brothers still living in Minnesota; by first researching the situation, to find the great areas of need; I will then immediately sponsor a bill to get federal funding to improve the living condition, poverty and improve the educational system of the almost 70,000 Native American still living in Minnesota.

  • Jack Shepard says:

    June 15, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Jack Shepard is a candidate for the Independence Party of Minnesota, for the United States Senate in the Minnesota August 12, 2014 Primary Election. Jack Shepard agrees with the author that Marijuana should be legalized in Minnesota and if elected will work to that end.
    jack Shepard says, “Presently Minnesota law has decriminalized marijuana possession. So why not go and finish the last small way legalizes, tax and regulate it?
    The Platform of the IP of Minnesota
    11) That Minnesota legalizes, taxes and regulations Marijuana.
    A recent poll found 75 percent of respndents believe the sale and use of recreational weed will eventually will be legal Nationwide!
    Over 500 leading economists, led by conservative icon Dr. Milton Friedman, called for a national debate about whether prohibition of marijuana is worth the cost. The occasion was a new report by Harvard University economist Dr. Jeffrey Miron estimating - probably conservatively - that replacing prohibition with a system of common-sense regulation could mean $10 billion to $14 billion per year in reduced government spending and new revenues. “We believe such a debate will favor a regime in which marijuana is legal but taxed and regulated like other goods,” Friedman and colleagues wrote. “At a minimum, this debate will force advocates of current policy to show that prohibition has benefits sufficient to justify the cost to taxpayers, foregone tax revenues, and numerous ancillary consequences that result from marijuana prohibition.” from his campaign web site