By John L. Fossum, Rice County Attorney
There have been many commentaries on drug prosecution and sentencing practices, mostly they seem to describe a system I don’t recognize. I have been practicing criminal law in Minnesota in state and federal court since 1993. In that time, I have never seen a low level user with a small amount of marijuana go to prison. Possession of a small amount of marijuana, less than 42.5 grams, or about an ounce and a half is a petty misdemeanor in Minnesota, the same level offense as a parking or speeding ticket, and the only possible penalty is a fine of $300 or less.
First time offenders with small amounts of other drugs may face Fifth Degree Controlled substance charges which are gross misdemeanor charges. A gross misdemeanor has a maximum penalty of one year in jail and/or a maximum fine of $3,000. However, a court can stay entry of conviction on those first offenses and put a defendant on probation; successful completion of probation and treatment, if needed, would result in dismissal of the charges and no record of a conviction.
For larger amounts of drugs, and users who appear to be dealing to support a habit, the practice has been to seek treatment and probation. When appropriate, those users are referred to the Rice County Drug Treatment Court to try to help them find a way off of drugs and into a sober lifestyle.
The bigger challenge is the high level dealers, those charged with First Degree Sales counts. These are the dealers who bring a large amount of drugs into our community and distribute them to midlevel dealers. A sentence for these dealers may remove them from the streets for a few years, 5-7 years if they have no prior felony convictions, or 10-15 years if they have multiple prior felony convictions.
In 2013, the Rice County Attorney’s office filed 67 drug felony cases, in 2014: 80 cases, by 2016 that number increased to 178. This is despite the fact the 2016 legislature moved the Fifth Degree controlled substance offense from a felony to a gross misdemeanor.
In 2013, there were 48 Child protection cases filed in Rice County, in 2014, there were 63, 2015 more than doubled to 131, in 2016, the filings dipped back to 119. There are many factors for these changes, legislative changes, changes in practices at social services, more social worker time spent on child protection but increased contact with children and methamphetamine is also part of the equation.
My office will continue to seek prison sentences for serious dealers, and we will continue to support and participate in the Rice County Drug Treatment Court with referrals and staffing. Prosecution and incarceration may not be the answer to a growing drug problem, but it is one of the tools we will have to use. In 2016 the legislature increased the availability of boot camp programs for offenders so drug dealers sentenced to prison may return to the community earlier than expected. Treatment and intervention in early use as well as interrupting the supply may help us reduce drug use and the societal burdens it creates.