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Lena Smith skybox

Lena Olive Smith was a prominent civil rights lawyer and activist in the ‘20s and ‘30s. She made major contributions toward securing civil rights for minorities in the Twin Cities after becoming the first African American woman licensed to practice law in Minnesota in 1921.

Despite long odds, local lawmakers, advocates push for legal weed
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Despite long odds, a group of state lawmakers have again introduced a bill that would fully legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational use.

Authored by Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, this year’s marijuana legalization bill is similar to the one introduced last year. Amid the COVID-related chaos at the capitol, Winkler’s previous bill died without so much as a hearing.

The death of George Floyd, which happened just weeks after Winkler introduced his bill, sparked international outcry, large peaceful protests, destructive riots and a renewed focus on racial justice. Within that context, Winkler made sure to highlight the traditionally discriminatory effects of Minnesota’s marijuana laws in making the case.

“The failed criminalization of cannabis has resulted in a legacy of racial injustice that can no longer go unaddressed,” said Winkler. “Adults deserve the freedom to decide whether to use cannabis, and our state government should play an important role in addressing legitimate concerns around youth access, public health and road safety.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than white Americans, despite similar rates of use.

In addition to legalizing marijuana, the bill would include a mechanism for expunging the records of those convicted of marijuana-related offenses. In its recently released report, the Minnesota House’s Select Committee on Racial Justice threw its weight behind both decriminalizing marijuana and expunging convictions.

In addition, the bill would create an “Office of Social Equity” within the new Cannabis Management Board, responsible for distributing grants funded by marijuana-related revenue to disadvantaged areas, similar to the federal government’s “opportunity zones.”

Public support

An MPR News/Star-Tribune poll from last year found that 51% of Minnesotans support legalizing marijuana for recreational use. That marks a big shift from 2014, when the same pollster found that just 30% of Minnesotans supported recreational marijuana.

Notably, the MPR News/Star-Tribune poll indicated that among voters, the issue doesn’t break down neatly around partisan lines. While DFLers were the most likely to support legal marijuana, just 59% did, along with 50% of independents and 42% of Republicans.

By contrast, the issue is largely seen as partisan in St. Paul. Two years ago, the Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee rejected a legalization bill in 2019 along partisan lines. After the bill was introduced, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, quickly dismissed the effort.

“I would not consider legalizing recreational marijuana as a Minnesota priority,” Gazelka said in a statement.

However, at least one local Republican lawmaker is on board with considering marijuana reform. Though he hasn’t co-sponsored Winkler’s bill, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, released a statement shortly after the bill’s introduction calling for change.

“Members of all political parties should work together toward implementing a better regulatory model to address the expensive, inefficient, and unfair prohibition on marijuana,” said Garofalo. “Reasonable people may disagree on the best way to fix our broken system, but nobody can responsibly defend the status quo.”

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, has signed on as a co-sponsor of Winkler’s bill. Like Winkler, Lippert portrayed the bill as a key piece of a much broader effort to address racial inequality.

In addition, Lippert said that Marijuana prohibition has failed to prevent Minnesotans from accessing the drug. However, it has prevented the state from regulating marijuana to ensure that the product is safe — posing a particular danger to Minnesota youth.

“Two-thirds of Minnesota youth say that cannabis is easy to get in Minnesota,” Lippert said. “I don’t think that’s acceptable.”

One family’s story

Heather Tidd is among the strongest local advocates for cannabis legalization. Tidd, who currently serves as Interim Executive Director of the Dakota Child and Family Clinic, formerly spent three years on the board of Sensible Minnesota, a cannabis legalization advocacy group.

Tidd got her start with cannabis advocacy when her son TJ entered the state’s medical cannabis program, hoping for relief from Tourette’s syndrome and PTSD.

The impact of medical cannabis on TJ’s condition was dramatic and immediate. Overnight, the number of tics caused by his Tourette’s Syndrome declined by 80% and he was able to live an increasingly normal and fulfilling life.

Even though the state’s medical cannabis program has been transforming for her son, Tidd expressed frustration with its high costs. Affording the treatment is all the more difficult because medical cannabis is typically not covered by insurance.

“We’re fortunate that we are able to afford it but we have to budget for it like a car payment, because it’s several hundred dollars a month,” she said. “Part of legalizing hopefully that helps with the cost issues.”

Tidd also believes that the current system’s tight regulations are a burden for many. In other states with less restrictive laws, she noted that additional varieties of marijuana are available that are especially helpful for some patients.

Tidd believes the time has come to embrace full legalization. Used responsibly, Tidd said she believes that recreational consumption of cannabis can be safer than alcohol — while prohibition harms communities and has a particularly disproportionate impact on people of color.

Safer legal?

While scientific research has been all over the map, one study published in Scientific Reports found that you’re 114 times more likely to die from alcohol than marijuana, while another said the annual health-related costs associated with alcohol are eight times greater than those with marijuana

On the flip side, some studies have linked marijuana use to an increase in the onset of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. According to the American Lung Association, smoking marijuana also exposes people to many of the same toxins as smoking tobacco.

Opponents of marijuana legalization have cited its effects on children as a cause for concern. A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggested that even using marijuana once or twice can lead to significant alterations of the adolescent brain.

It’s unclear whether legalizing marijuana actually increases adolescent marijuana usage. One study, published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics found the legalization of recreational marijuana to actually be associated with a decline in marijuana use.

Proposals to legalize marijuana have garnered robust opposition locally. Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen was among those who testified against legalization during the Minnesota Senate’s 2019 hearings.

Bohlen has said he views marijuana as a gateway drug. If it’s legalized, he fears the state would see more mental health issues and crime as well.

Kathy Cooper of the Rice County Safe Roads Coalition said she’s particularly concerned about the combined effects of marijuana and alcohol on a driver’s system. One study showed an increase in fatal crashes of about 5 to 6% in Washington and Colorado following legalization.

Cooper’s daughter Meghan was killed in a car crash more than 20 years ago. Cooper said the driver of the vehicle, in addition to being drunk, admitted to smoking significant amounts of marijuana the day of the crash.

While Norwegian road safety researcher Rune Elvik has claimed the risk of driving while under the intoxication of marijuana alone is so low that it’s comparable to driving in the dark, Cooper said that when alcohol and marijuana are combined, the risk skyrockets.

“We already have drunk drivers on the road, people who mix alcohol and marijuana are more impaired than those using just a single substance,” she said.

New study underscores continued need for housing
  • Updated

Faribault’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority finally got a first peek at a long-awaited study that underscored the continued need for new housing.

Prepared by Golden Valley-based Maxfield Research and Consulting, the study provides the most comprehensive publicly available look at the state of Faribault’s housing market.

In the last couple of years, Faribault has attracted several developers with help from tax increment financing districts, as well as affordable state housing grants. Projects currently in the works include 111-unit Straight River Apartments and 76-unit Lofts at Evergreen Knoll. Once everything currently in the works is complete, the city will have roughly 300 new housing units on the market. With so much progress being made, and the economy being thrown into chaos by COVID, the HRA wanted to get a sense of what its next steps should be.

According to the study, that growth in the housing market hasn’t been nearly enough. Maxfield projects that an additional 380 units will need to be constructed over the next decade, the vast majority (235) of which would be market rate. Notably, the demand for market rate housing is greater than that for affordable/subsidized housing even though the city has a lower median wage than southeastern Minnesota overall, and the gap is apparently growing.

According to the report, the vacancy rate for multifamily housing was even lower than reported in a 2017 Maxfield study. As of September 2020, the city’s overall vacancy rate sat at just 0.4% and an even lower 0.3% for affordable/subsidized properties.

Next move?

In 2017, the HRA commissioned Maxfield to conduct a much narrower vacancy and demographic analysis to see if Faribault could benefit from a new workforce housing tax increment financing program established by the Minnesota legislature.

In order to qualify for the program, communities needed to demonstrate that they and all cities within a 15-mile radius had a rental housing vacancy rate of less than 3%. Thus, the study examined housing markets in Northfield and Owatonna in addition to Faribault. With a vacancy rate between the three communities of just 1.3%, and only 0.9% in Faribault itself, it established without a doubt that Faribault would be eligible for the program.

Since then, the city has worked frantically to bring in developers to reach a healthy vacancy rate of 5%. Despite strong regional economic growth, that’s proven to be a significant challenge.

Of course, that economic growth could be at risk without significant growth in the housing sector. With skilled workers in high demand amid a workforce shortage, Faribault area companies risk losing them if there isn’t enough housing to conveniently suit them. A big part of the challenge is that when compared to the south metro, Faribault has significantly lower property values. While the cost of building a house is much the same in Faribault as in the south metro, higher property values ensure a greater profit margin.

City Councilor Royal Ross, a real estate agent, said that the report’s findings square with what he’s seeing on the ground. Ross expressed hope that the units currently under construction will start to ease pressure on the market.

“Hopefully that market-rate available housing will tend to absorb a lot of that demand,” he said. “You’ll have older people move into an apartment from a single family home, families who move into a home from an apartment, and people who move into a nicer, bigger apartment.”

While the study was in progress, city staff discouraged staff and members of the HRC and Economic Development Authority from making too many moves with regard to housing. The strategizing on how to bring developers to town is soon to start.

On the single family side, Councilor Jonathan Wood has proposed relaxing building permit fees. Though it would put a dent in the city’s bottom line, Wood, who owns his own construction business, says he believes it would more than pay for itself by encouraging development.

Councilors have also discussed adding a mobile home park to town. Early last year, the former Faribault Foods sprayfield site was identified as a potential location, but in the wake of COVID the company interested in the project has been exploring other plans for the location.

When it comes to multifamily housing, what to do with the former Lockerby site could be at the top of the list. With a central location at Willow and Mill streets, the site was snapped up by the city as soon as it hit the market.

The city entered into a development agreement for a new apartment building with 69 units, underground parking and onsite amenities. But to make the finances work, the developer needed to secure tax credits from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. That application was denied, and the developer decided not to reapply.

Another potential issue is the site’s location in the floodplain. Though the developer had been comfortable that its proposal would minimize the risks associated with flooding, the site’s proximity to the Straight River could scare other developers.

Uncertainty over how to handle the Lockerby site was a major factor in triggering the housing study. Based on its results, Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said the city may want to explore ways to attract a market rate developer to the site.