A split St. Paul City Council is moving forward with a plan to ban smoking in city parks and near certain building entrances, as city leaders continue to weigh their role in regulating the recently legalized use of recreational cannabis.
The ordinance, which was introduced by Council Member Chris Tolbert, drew waves of testimony from those for and against the proposed restrictions, creating tension between two long-standing progressive causes: efforts to regulate the tobacco industry and curb secondhand smoke, and efforts to decriminalize marijuana.
On Wednesday, Tolbert proposed a law that would make it illegal to smoke in city parks, as well as within 25 feet of public buildings and places of employment.
The policy is a scaled-back version of Tolbert's initial proposal, which would have banned smoking on any city owned land, such as streets and sidewalks. The latest version of the law includes exceptions for smoking in designated areas marked by property owners and for use in cultural ceremonies.
A final vote on the ordinance will likely take place next week. The council voted 4-2 to approve Tolbert's changes, with opposition from Council Members Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang. Council Member Russel Balenger was absent.
"I think it's OK to make smoking inconvenient," said Tolbert, who has noted that St. Paul was one of the first cities in the state to ban smoking in bars and restaurants.
Many people and interest groups who support the law expressed similar concerns about the health impacts of secondhand smoke. Other proponents said cannabis smoke and litter would negatively affect their park experience.
Opponents said the policy defies the intent of the state law, which aims to repair the harm done to people convicted for marijuana offenses. People of color have historically been charged with marijuana crimes at much higher rates than whites, despite both groups using marijuana at similar rates, numerous studies have shown.
Jalali advocated for a less-restrictive ban of smoking in just "youth activity areas," such as playgrounds and athletic fields. The city's parks department has followed this policy for years and it has not created problems, she said.
"I disagree that it is progressive to change our rules in the name of smoke and not think about all of the complexities of the racial justice policy passed by the Legislature," Jalali said.
The council added language to encourage voluntary compliance and possibly allow administrative citations to be issued for future violations. St. Paul's charter does not currently allow the city to impose such fines, and previous attempts to change it have failed, most recently in 2021.
Those who refuse to comply could still face a petty misdemeanor and fine of up to $300.
Since the state law took effect Aug. 1, more than a dozen Minnesota cities — including Richfield, Edina, Minnetonka and Mendota Heights in the metro — have passed or are considering smoking bans for public places. Others may go a step further, banning public consumption of other forms of cannabis, such as edibles.
Tolbert, noting that the city regulates where alcohol can be consumed, suggested last week that St. Paul could enact laws restricting where people can consume marijuana in other ways.
Regulating consumption seems to be the tip of the iceberg for local governments navigating the new law. Once the state Office of Cannabis Management starts issuing retail licenses — likely in 2025 — cities will be required to register sellers and perform compliance checks.
Staff writer Josie Albertson-Grove contributed to this report.