Court’s drug ruling completely sober

Minn. Supreme Court’s recent bong water decision has got people huffing and puffing.

by Jake Parsley

When the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a decision on Oct. 22 declaring that possession of bong water containing elements of methamphetamines is a âÄúfirst degree controlled substance crimeâÄù under Minnesota law, it was a pretty big deal. FOX News, CBS, the Associated Press, among others, all covered the decision. YouâÄôd have thought there was some kind of election recount going on with all that media attention Our own Minnesota Daily Editorial Board called the decision âÄúa huge step backwards for Minnesota,âÄù and railed against the âÄúfaulty logic behind this decision.âÄù So, I went and read the case, and IâÄôm going to go ahead and disagree with the doomsayers. I think the courtâÄôs opinion was well-reasoned and restrained in its interpretation of the law. That said, I agree the final result of the courtâÄôs ruling is a serious problem. IâÄôm no drug policy expert, but an 86-month sentence (which is what the defendant, Sara Peck, faces under MinnesotaâÄôs sentencing guidelines if she is convicted) for possessing 2.5 tablespoons of water laced with meth seems a little steep. If weâÄôre in agreement that seven years for bong water is bad policy, whoâÄôs to blame? If you ask me, itâÄôs not the Minnesota Supreme Court. There are other parties that I think should be held accountable for this problematic result, starting with the defendant herself, Sara Peck. When police executed a search warrant on PeckâÄôs home back in 2007, they found plastic bags with meth, a spoon, a glass pipe, a digital scale and a small glass bong containing the fateful meth-laced water. According to the opinion, Peck was home at the time of the search with her two children. So in addition to the drug-related charges, Peck was charged with child endangerment. Drug-using moms are not typically sympathy-inducing defendants. In addition, PeckâÄôs counsel didnâÄôt help her much. She was represented by an overworked and underpaid public defender. PeckâÄôs defense really dropped the ball on this one. Based on the witness at the district court level, a state trooper certified as a narcotics handler, meth users sometimes ingest bong water by drinking or injecting it in their veins. The testimony before the court was essentially that PeckâÄôs bong water was 2.5 tablespoons of usable drugs, not 2.5 tablespoons of dirty water used to facilitate the ingestion of drugs. This is an important distinction, because the dissenters in the case argued that the water was not itself a drug, rather it was a facilitator of drug use. Bong water should be considered drug paraphernalia, the dissenters argued, and thus subject to penalties that are far less harsh. But PeckâÄôs defense apparently never successfully countered this testimony. Then thereâÄôs the prosecution. Rice County officials made the decision to charge Peck under the first-degree possession statute. They then proceeded to argue the bong-water-as-drug-mixture angle at the district court (where they lost), then at the Minnesota Court of Appeals (where they lost again) and finally at the Minnesota Supreme Court. This makes little sense to me. This apparently could have been an open-and-shut case if county attorneys had pursued more reasonable charges. Instead, years later weâÄôre still blowing taxpayer money to prosecute, defend and decide whether or not we can send a woman to jail for seven years (and spend more taxpayer dollars) for failing to empty her bong. The office of Lori Swanson, MinnesotaâÄôs attorney general, represented the state at the Court of Appeals and at the Supreme Court. Why didnâÄôt she stop this inane decision? Clearly, the prosecution in this case was out for blood, and they eventually got it. Finally, we come to the Minnesota Legislature. Our elected representatives have written (and re-written a few times) a law about drugs. Here is what it says: âÄúA person is guilty of controlled substance crime in the first degree if âĦ the person unlawfully possesses one or more mixtures of a total weight of 25 grams or more containing cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine.âÄù Potheads take comfort, this law doesnâÄôt include marijuana. Sara Peck had 33 grams (2.5 tablespoons) of water with some meth in it. The decision facing the court was whether this water- meth combination was, under the above law, a âÄúmixtureâÄù because it was over 25 grams and contained meth. A mixture is defined in Minnesota law as âÄúa preparation, compound, mixture or substance containing a controlled substance, regardless of purity.âÄù So the court busted out the dictionary. They looked up words like âÄúmixtureâÄù and âÄúpreparation,âÄù and eventually reached the conclusion the language of the law was unambiguous. Water plus meth equals âÄúmixtureâÄù and a first degree crime. Some justices disagreed. In a well-written dissent, Justice Paul Anderson talked about how our prisons were full, about how bong water isnâÄôt typically consumed, and about how Minnesota law isnâÄôt intended to lock away people like Peck for seven years. Anderson clearly recognized the unfortunate results of the majority opinion and worked hard to justify exempting Peck from the law. Two other justices joined his dissent. I believe Anderson was being true to the spirit of MinnesotaâÄôs drug laws. The majority cited a state law, âÄúWhen the words of a law in their application to an existing situation are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of the law shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the spirit.âÄù Theoretically, in our system of government, judges are bound by the law. They have to interpret the law, regardless of personal stake or unfortunate results. So yeah, weâÄôre stuck with bad drug policy. But donâÄôt blame the court. Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]