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Melin challenges cops on pot opposition

Rep. Carly Melin

Rep. Carly Melin acknowledges that many in law enforcement have legitimate public safety concerns related to medical marijuana. But she says the uncompromising posture of the top law-enforcement officials makes it “pretty obvious that something else is going on here.” (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Medical marijuana bill sponsor says police agencies are hooked on drug-enforcement dollars 

In her push to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota, Rep. Carly Melin expected there would be tough negotiations and, inevitably, some compromise on the fine points of the proposal. That seemed a reasonable assumption, given the hard line opposition from many of the state’s law enforcement leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton’s insistence that lawmakers need to get those top cops on board before he signs on.

The negotiations haven’t been tough, she said, they have been virtually non-existent:  “It’s like negotiating with a brick wall. All along I have said that I am willing to amend the bill. But they won’t move at all.”

The second-term DFLer from Hibbing said she was particularly frustrated after she met in November with representatives of the powerful Minnesota Law Enforcement Coalition, a group that includes the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, Minnesota Sheriffs Association, Minnesota County Attorneys Association, and Minnesota State Association of Narcotics Investigators.

“They wouldn’t discuss any specific provisions and said they had a blanket opposition to medical marijuana,” Melin recalled. She took note of one objection voiced at the meeting but not mentioned in the coalition’s 10-page, bullet-point laden white paper: concern about the impact the measure might have on police budgets.

According to Melin, Dennis Flaherty, the executive director of the MPPOA, explicitly told her that he was worried that legalization — in any form — could lead to harmful reductions in the federal grants that are an important funding source for many police agencies.

Efforts to reach Flaherty for comment were not successful.

To date, most questions about the policy positions of law enforcement and its financial stake in upholding current drug law have received little attention at the Capitol. “I don’t think it’s part of the debate because they wouldn’t publicly admit that it’s even an issue,” Melin said. In addition, she said, “Nobody wants to question the motives or honesty of law enforcement.”

Melin took pains to acknowledge that many in law enforcement have legitimate public safety concerns related to medical marijuana. But the uncompromising posture of the top leaders, she added, makes it “pretty obvious that something else is going on here.”


Federal grants bring millions to state

Whether or not money is a motivating factor, there is no question that federal crime-fighting funds have become  increasingly important to local law enforcement. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Justice distributes between $300 million and $500 million annually through a program called the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant.

Byrne grants are especially critical to the operations of inter-agency drug task forces, which don’t have the same dedicated funding sources as municipal police departments. In 2012, 23 such task forces in Minnesota received a total of approximately $4.2 million from Byrne grants. The money is spent on everything from military-grade hardware to officer overtime.

Critics contend that Byrne grants effectively encourage police to pursue relatively low-level drug offenses, including marijuana possession. Mainly, they say, that’s because the performance measures used in determining awards are based on such factors as numbers of arrests or new task force investigations, with little regard paid to the quality of the arrest or the outcome of the court case.

“The agencies that are successful have to demonstrate a commitment to drug enforcement. The nature of that enforcement is much less important,” said Norm Stamper, a former chief of police in Seattle who now serves on the board of the drug reform advocacy group, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Those who develop a dependency on federal funds such as Byrne grants are likely going to oppose any kind of initiative to legalize anything that’s been a cash cow for them.”

Stamper, who testified before the Minnesota Legislature during the last big medical marijuana push in 2009, said law enforcement has another big stake: preserving its haul from assets seized in the course of drug investigations.

During his tenure with the San Diego Police Department, Stamper said he felt “a real sense of justice” after the department seized two helicopters owned by high level drug dealers and then converted them to the department’s use. “I have since come to view seized assets with a very jaundiced eye,” Stamper said. “I think there is a really twisted set of priorities that cause too many in law enforcement to go after the money and that becomes the mission, rather than public safety.”


Forfeiture proceeds bolster budgets

For those police who see medicinal marijuana as gateway legislation, the financial implications of change are real. In Washington, where recreational marijuana is legal, police are already complaining they’ve been forced to slash budgets because they can no longer rely on any revenue from marijuana-related asset seizures. A drug task force in one county cut its budget by 15 percent to compensate for the lost revenue.

In 2012, police in Minnesota seized approximately $8.3 million of cash and property under the state’s forfeiture law, according to a report from the Office of the State Auditor. About 47 percent of those forfeitures were related to controlled substance violations, with most of the rest associated with drunk driving.

The auditor’s report does not differentiate between marijuana and other drugs, so it is hard to know how a change to legalized medical marijuana might affect the cash haul, said Sen. Ron Latz. Latz said he suspects most asset forfeitures are connected to drugs such as crack and meth, where the felony threshold is low.

Not all agencies use the forfeiture law in the same way. The St. Paul Police Department netted more than $582,000 from asset seizures in 2012. It was the second-biggest haul of any police agency in the state — a fact made more notable since the proceeds were derived exclusively from controlled-substance cases.

According to Lee McGrath, an attorney with the libertarian Institute for Justice, Minnesota law enforcement agencies netted nearly $30 million between 2003 and 2010 through the use of forfeiture.

“What is most offensive in Minnesota is that you can be acquitted in criminal court and still lose your car or your cash in civil court,” McGrath said. “The only people defending the current law are in law enforcement. Everybody else is offended by the idea.”

While forfeiture was sold to the public as a good way to hit drug kingpins and gang leaders in the wallet, McGrath said, Minnesota law enforcement mostly use forfeiture to target small game. “No Colombian drug lords are being busted under this law. The average seizure in Minnesota is worth $1,253,” he said.

McGrath, as well as some liberal and libertarian-minded lawmakers, want to prohibit the use of forfeiture in the absence of a criminal conviction or admission of guilt. Rep. Susan Allen and Sen. Dave Thompson have proposed such legislation.


Police defend revenue streams

That move is not winning friends in law enforcement circles. In December, the members of the state’s Violent Crime Coordinating Council — an oversight body created in 2010 after the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force failed to account for more than $18,000 in seized cash — voted to oppose “proposed legislation limiting the use of asset seizure and forfeiture.”

Dodge County Sheriff Jim Jensen, the VCCC chair, passed on those objections to Allen and Thompson in a Feb. 7 letter. The same day, Jensen also wrote Rep. Melin and Sen. Scott Dibble to formally express the VCCC’s opposition to the medical marijuana legislation, as well.

The letters irked Melin enough that she fired off her own letter to the House Research Department inquiring as to whether the VCCC over-stepped its statutory authority in advancing policy positions. The answer: yes, probably.

In a sharply worded letter to Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman and the members of the VCCC, Melin made her frustrations clear:

“The public has long questioned law enforcement’s motivation behind its staunch opposition to medicinal marijuana, and suspected that a threat to the law enforcement’s revenue stream through forfeiture laws creates an inherit conflict. The fact that the VCCC opposed both medical marijuana and a restructuring of forfeiture laws at the same meeting raises a red flag that needs further exploration.”

In addition, Melin wrote that “it is especially concerning to me that the VCCC flew in a law enforcement officer from Colorado to address the Council on medical marijuana laws in the State of Colorado.”

Melin said the incident further highlighted the outsized role that law enforcement has assumed in a debate she would prefer be defined by doctors and patients. But, she said, Gov. Dayton invited law enforcement to the table. “It would be very helpful for us if the governor asked law enforcement to negotiate in good faith,” she added.


  1. I am very pleased that Rep. Melin has called out Law Enforcement’s continued bad faith in any negotiations as well as the true underlying cause of their objections. They stand to lose significant Federal grant funding as well as the ability to initiate searches based on “smell” or “officer discretion” and lastly assets acquired through shady forfeiture practices. In Minnesota cannabis arrests account for around 60% of all drug related arrests and disproportionately impact persons on color. Minnesota is a national leader in this racial disparity with Blacks being 7.1 times more likely to be arrested than whites although both groups use cannabis at essentially equal rates. Further, studies show that Colorado youth have actually lowered their rates of cannabis since 1999 based on Monitoring the Future’s survey results. Colorado has also realized a real decline in Drunken Driving fatalities since 2000. Lastly, MNA, the Minnesota Nurses Union also supports this bill. Who do you think should be making your healthcare decisons? Law Enforcement or Medical Professionals. Since cannabis is safer than alcohol I fully support legalization and controlling it for adults over 21.

  2. This is disgusting. law enforcement and Governor Dayton should be ashamed of themselves. They are on the wrong side of History on this issue as well as on the wrong side of science, modern medicine, and all things, good compassionate, loving, caring and logical. It’s time to end marijuana Prohibition in Minnesota. And the vast majority (over 75%) of Minnesotans agree with this. Everyone needs to demand change and email or call Gov Dayton and your representatives and tell them to side with the People on this issue and not with the entrenched special interests of the law enforcement community. It’s time to end the epic failure that has been marijuana prohibition in Minnesota.

  3. According to the ONDCP, Minnesota received $96M in drug war money in 2010.

  4. As time passes, the rhetoric about the dangers of pot will decline. If alcohol is legal, then pot should be legal and if people use pot as a substitute for alcohol then that is a good thing in the long run. Make no mistake that pot is not harmless and can be abused, but the overall damage to society is much less than alcohol. Take the money that has been going toward pot law enforcement and put it to better use to fight violent crimes and/or send it to addition treatment centers instead of the industrial prison complex. The costs that go into the enforcement of pot laws far exceed only the dollars and it is now an outdated model of how to deal with the issue of cannabis abuse.

  5. The ONLY thing dangerous about marijuana are the cops who shoot people for having it:

    Number of American deaths per year that result directly or primarily from the following selected causes nationwide, according to World Almanacs, Life Insurance Actuarial (death) Rates, and the last 20 years of U.S. Surgeon Generals’ reports.

    TOBACCO – 340,000 to 450,000

    ALCOHOL  (Not including 50% of all highway deaths and 65% of all murders) – 150,000+

    ASPIRIN  (Including deliberate overdose) – 180 to 1,000+

    CAFFEINE  (From stress, ulcers, and triggering irregular heartbeats, etc.) – 1,000 to 10,000
    “LEGAL” DRUG OVERDOSE  (Deliberate or accidental) from legal, prescribed or patent medicines and/or mixing with alcohol – e.g. Valium/alcohol – 14,000 to 27,000
    ILLICIT DRUG OVERDOSE – (Deliberate or accidental) from all illegal drugs – 3,800 to 5,200
    MARIJUANA – 0 

    (Marijuana users also have the same or lower incidence of murders and highway deaths and accidents than the general non-marijuana using population as a whole. Cancer Study, UCLA; U.S. Funded ($6 million), First & Second Jamaican Studies, 1968 to 1974; Costa Rican Studies, 1980 to 1982; et al. LOWEST TOXICITY 100% of the studies done at dozens of American universities and research facilities show pot toxicity does not exist. Medical history does not record anyone dying from an overdose of marijuana (UCLA, Harvard, Temple, etc.)

    “Marijuana users also have the same or lower incidence of murders and highway deaths and accidents than the general non-marijuana using population as a whole.”

    Accordingly a study done by the U.S. Department of Transportation came to the same conclusion concerning marijuana and driving safety:

    “Marijuana, administered in a dose of 100 µg THC per kg of whole body weight…did not significantly change mean driving performance as measured…” – U.S Department of Transportation: Marijuana and Actual Driving Performance DOT HS 808 078

    The fact is people who use marijuana reflexes are not effected in a negative way and they become more conscious of safety, sometimes refusing to even drive.

    Marijuana is a plant with a safety record second to none.

    Anyone who would like to dispute these FACTS, point to a death that involves marijuana and nothing but marijuana, or hold your tongue.

  6. “law enforcement and Governor Dayton should be ashamed of themselves” +1

  7. As a disabled person in Minnesota I have three choices, either have surgery which could put me in a wheelchair for the rest of my life or make me a stick that can’t even bend over to tie my shoes or take potentially life threatening narcotics that could someday kill me. Or do nothing and live in pain that at times is so bad I wish someone would just shoot me and put me out of my misery. It seems like this last alternative is what governor Dayton and the Minnesota police would prefer. Maybe they should just line up the sick and disabled and do just that I’m sure they wouldn’t mind. After all they’re just getting rid of burdens on society. After working forty plus years and paying taxes to the state of Minnesota don’t I deserve better than this. We don’t need a governmental babysitter, We need a governor with as much compassion for the sick and disabled as he showed the gay community. We’re talking about quality of life for everyone, not just the fit and healthy. Kudos to Rep. Carly Melin we need more people like her in government, and we need to replace governor Dayton and a some of the Minnesota police force. ( Carly Melin for Governor she has my vote.) Shame on you Mr. Dayton we don’t need a police state we need a compassionate state.! And we need freedom of choice, are we or are we not a free Country?

  8. Rep. Carly Melin, is certainly a Hero!

  9. It’s striking that the Law Enforcement would be so greedy for their “Millions” in grants, so as to over ride the potential for OUR STATE to realize BILLIONS in tax revenue.

    It’s time for Mark Dayton to WAKE THE HECK UP! Seriously. We are letting the police lobby dictate policy for pennies on the dollar. It’s FOLLY!!

  10. I’m disabled also a quad since 1991 with a long list of health issues. Tried every drug there is with no positive results only bad side effects. Marijuana has been the only thing that can help control my issues with no side effects. Makes me very sad when you see these uneducated law makers and law enforcement make excuses why they don’t think it should be legal. My hats off to Rep, Carly Melin we do need more people like her in government. It’s a plant people that has never killed anyone in history. The medical benefits are incredible!

  11. Hey. I have an idea….if the Police agencies are in such desperate need of funds, why not create forfeiture laws for REAL criminals. Take away the bank accounts, money, houses, vehicles of pedophiles, serial killers white-collar fraudsters, bankers, etc.

    You know, punish people whose crimes have ACTUAL VICTIMS.

    Seizing assets or imprisoning people for the growth, consumption or sharing of a plant is the real crime here, those people are in essence victims of corrupt law enforcement, not criminals.

  12. Seems the only ones for the continued war on drugs are the drug cartels, the cops, the corrupt legal/ prison system and their minions. As far as the cops go lets call it what it really is welfare.

  13. I love my country and the state of Minnesota but this has got to change. Stop ruining people lives over a plant. The people need to have their say in the upcoming elections.

  14. Of course we’ll have to send these police to rehab due to their addiction to drug war forfeiture funding. While they check in I don’t know what militaristic entity we’ll have to rely on to protect us from a plant. Protest and serve, and leave policy to the citizens.

  15. I imagine it gets pretty addicting to legally steal massive amounts of wealth from others for simply possessing plant matter. Time to address their addictions.

  16. you go girl! I didn’t vote for you but I might next time! why is a plant anyone can grow illegal?

  17. Go to MPP.ORG and send a letter to Governor Dayton in support of legalization, he needs to hear from everyone. God I hate calling him Governor.

  18. If Dayton is reelected governor it’s four more years of suffering for everyone except the Police!!!!!!!!

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