Councilman, U NORML founder discuss drug laws

Tom Ford

A day after moving into Frontier Hall, freshman Jason Samuels was arrested by University police for marijuana possession.

Two years later, Samuels said he joined the Navy with hopes of working in intelligence.

But because of his arrest, Samuels said, he could not gain security clearance into his desired field, despite scoring in the 99th percentile on his aptitude tests. He was consigned to a lower-level post.

Hoping to prevent similar fates for other Minneapolis residents, Samuels – a University senior and founder of the campus’ National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws chapter – said he recently met with City Council member Dean Zimmermann to discuss ways to decriminalize marijuana use.

Samuels and other NORML members are pushing for the city to stop arresting people for marijuana violations, which they say wastes police resources and unfairly penalizes marijuana users.

“We really feel that people are being targeted and punished unjustly,” Samuels said.

Minneapolis police narcotics unit Sgt. Jeff Miller said relaxing marijuana laws would “send a bad message,” adding to marijuana abuse problems.

He said more people could end up driving while impaired, and marijuana use leads to taking other drugs.

Compared with other drugs, Miller said, marijuana is a low priority for the department. He said marijuana enforcement efforts generally target high-level dealers and sellers.

“I don’t think we do a lot of proactive work to go after small-time users or sellers,” he said.

Under current state law, the possession or sale of less than 42.5 grams of marijuana is a petty misdemeanor. Anything more constitutes a felony.

Samuels said they want the city to enact a policy that would impose merely fines rather than arrests for offenses, or mandate that police establish marijuana enforcement as its lowest priority.

A similar set of policies exists in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In 1974, Ann Arbor voters approved making marijuana law violations in the city civil, rather than criminal, offenses.

Under that ordinance, the city imposes fines – starting at $25 – on offenders. Michigan statutes classify violations as misdemeanors and punish offenses with fines up to $500 or 90-day jail sentences.

Doug Hicks, a crime analyst with the Minneapolis Police Department, said the department arrested 1,123 adults for possession and sale of marijuana in 2001.

Samuels said minorities and college-age people are
disproportionately incarcerated, which he said fosters alienation and mistrust of the police and government.

Joe Dunsmore, a NORML member who’s been working to decriminalize pot, said enforcement restricts the police from “fighting real crime.”

“People shouldn’t be arrested for smoking marijuana, to be doing something that isn’t really harming anyone else,” Dunsmore said.

“The person going to prison for this is much worse than the few health risks there are for marijuana.”

Mary Ellison, director of Minnesota’s Drug Policy and Violence Prevention program, said several cities have tried to lessen enforcement, but neighborhoods often bristled at the changes.

Ellison said communities feared open-air drug dealing and use would result from such policy amendments.

Dunsmore said NORML members expect to meet with Zimmermann again in a few weeks. He said he hopes a resolution would be introduced to the council next month.

Zimmermann was not available for comment.

Tom Ford welcomes comments at [email protected]