One St. Paul man described his struggles to find work with marijuana possession on his criminal record. A woman worried about pot smoke in the park where her family plays. A man wondered how police in Minnesota's capital city will juggle enforcement of smoking laws with more serious crimes.
More than two dozen people packed into City Council chambers on Wednesday afternoon to weigh in on a proposed law that would limit where people can smoke outdoors. But the debate grew more wide-ranging, reflecting the balancing act faced by local leaders across Minnesota with legal recreational cannabis now a fact of life.
"I think the most important thing is balancing everyone's enjoyment of clean air with people's right to use certain substances," Council Member Chris Tolbert said.
Another 40 people submitted written comments to the council, both for and against the proposal. In St. Paul, the possibility of new smoking regulations is creating tension between two long-standing progressive movements: efforts to regulate the tobacco industry and curb secondhand smoke, and efforts to decriminalize marijuana.
It remains unclear what St. Paul's regulation will look like. After several members proposed last-minute amendments, and with a handful of legal questions lingering, the council voted to postpone the matter and bring a more final proposal to next week's meeting.
Cannabis in Minnesota
Last month, Tolbert initially proposed a ban on smoking — of tobacco, hemp or cannabis — in all "city-controlled public places." But Council Member Mitra Jalali raised concerns that such a sweeping ban would disadvantage renters and lead to discriminatory enforcement.
"We can't undermine one of the most important racial justice pieces of racial justice legislation that our state has ever passed," said Jalali, noting that people of color have disproportionately faced the ripple effects of minor drug offenses, including incarceration and the loss of housing and job opportunities.
State Rep. Athena Hollins and state Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, both DFLers representing St. Paul, spoke out against restrictions on cannabis use.
"This ordinance also serves as one of the first restrictions set in place by a major metropolitan area in the state of Minnesota, which means it will be used as a standard for other municipalities going forward," Hollins said. "This is especially worrisome when we consider cities that may not be as progressive or diverse as ours is"
But the proposed restrictions received letters of support from the Minnesota Medical Association, the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota and Central Priority Pediatrics, citing the potential health impacts of secondhand smoke.
The state law restricts marijuana use anywhere tobacco is banned under the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, but leaves regulation of most outdoor public spaces up to the discretion of local governments.
"It is a little bit unique how Minnesota enacted this portion of the law," Alex Hassel, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, said in an informational presentation to the council last month. "Typically, what we've seen in every other state, is pretty clear instruction that public use is not permitted. But this law really left it to local governments to make that determination."
A sticking point for St. Paul is the city's inability to impose administrative fines. Previous efforts to change the St. Paul charter to give the city that power have failed.
Tolbert brought forward a new proposal Wednesday that would prohibit smoking of tobacco, cannabis and hemp products in city parks and within 25 feet of public buildings and places of employment. Violations could result in a petty misdemeanor and fine of up to $300.
Jalali proposed an alternative that would prohibit smoking in "youth activity areas," such as playgrounds and athletic fields. Her plan would include an enforcement provision that would require the ability to impose administrative fines.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter's office did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal Wednesday. The council will likely take a final vote later this month.
"What I heard tonight is there are two things that we need to take into account: the desire for public health and the desire not to over-police or over-criminalize," Council Member Rebecca Noecker said. "I think the amendments that I've heard shared tonight … are going to strike that balance."