Mary Moriarty and Ilhan Omar discuss impact of marijuana legalization, consent decree

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At a panel discussion on marijuana legalization hosted by Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty and Rep. Ilhan Omar, much of the conversation focused on how reforms imposed upon the Minneapolis Police Department will also impact changes to come.

The event Wednesday at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School during welcome week was attended by a dozen students and community members more than a month after the Aug. 1 decriminalization of recreational marijuana in Minnesota. Several of them asked questions — most were prepared ahead of time and presented by Omar to Moriarty, Rep. Cedrick Frazier and longtime cannabis legalization advocate Leili Fatehi.

Panelists all underscored the lasting harm of the war on drugs, mass incarceration and disproportionate impact on communities of color despite equal rates of cannabis use among white and Black Minnesotans. The collateral consequences of being arrested and charged for cannabis spans housing and employment.

"We destabilize people's lives," Moriarty said.

The new legalization is a recognition that "cannabis prohibition has been an abject failure," Fatehi said, but legalization alone isn't enough. That's why Frazier said lawmakers went as far as they could with the new law to include automatic misdemeanor expungement and create a new board to consider expunging felony convictions on a case by case basis. A director for that Office of Cannabis Management will be named this month to begin looking at those cases and establishing much of the rulemaking to guide the work.

Beyond that, the social equity piece of the legislation ensures people of color and those negatively impacted by cannabis possession or other nonviolent pot crimes have the opportunity to participate in the marketplace — "and do so with priority," Fatehi said.

"To not just be employed in the industry, but be owners in the industry," she continued. "That is really a unique feature of our law that we explicitly said on your licensing application: if you, your parent, your child has been arrested or otherwise adversely impacted by the criminal justice system as a result of cannabis prohibition, you get points for that. If you can provide even a narrative description of the way the war on drugs has impacted you or your community, you receive points for that."

Frazier said the state has $14 million set aside in grants and loans for those to learn about the industry and get the capital to start their own small business.

Moriarty said under a new settlement agreement between the city and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which charged the city with a pattern of discrimination in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, officers are no longer allowed to search a person or vehicle solely because they smell marijuana. She said they also can't ask to search someone, but other law enforcement agencies operating in Minneapolis and the county, such as the State Patrol and Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, aren't subject to the agreement. After similar federal findings, an anticipated consent decree by the U.S. Department of Justice, which has yet to be finalized, could span upward of a decade.

"Our office is going to be having some events to get input about what do you think we should be doing to enforce the spirit of the consent decree," Moriarty said.

She said there's only one area she has a public safety concern and that's driving while high. But she said nothing about marijuana legalizaion changes that. It's always been illegal to drive under the influence. In fact, she said that in January she was rear-ended by a driver who was high.

Her office is considering policy changes surrounding cannabis, including open container violations. That will be another educational piece for drivers that her office plans to roll out after more events similar to Wednesday's.

"I look forward to us having further conversations as this piece of legislation gets fully implemented," Omar said, "and the benefits of it are noticed by the constituents we all serve."