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Marijuana in Minnesota: Legalization issue sparks fierce debate

With Gov. Tim Walz ordering Minnesota state agencies to prepare Minnesota for marijuana legalization, the state could be looking at another push to legalize marijuana. Although the push is unlikely to succeed, this controversial and complicated policy issue could have major ramifications in the 2020 elections and beyond.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, is expected to introduce some form of a legalization bill in the House next year. At the State Fair, Winkler began a statewide “listening tour,” to solicit feedback on the issue. The DFL holds a 75-59 majority in the State House after winning 18 previously Republican held seats last year, mostly in suburban areas, amidst a national “blue wave.”

With Republicans now holding a 35-32 majority, both sides acknowledge that as long as the Senate remains Republican, legalization is unlikely to succeed.

Proponents of marijuana legalization often tout the benefits of raising money from taxes on the newly legalized product. In Washington State, for example, taxes on marijuana have raised an amount of state revenue comparable to alcohol and tobacco taxes.

While most states that have legalized cannabis have seen new revenues comparable to or more than what they had been expecting, the nation’s largest state has not.

After eight years of medical marijuana, Californians legalized recreational marijuana by ballot petition in 2016 amid promises of more than $600 million in revenue. However, the state has netted barely half of its expected revenue. Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration reduced estimated marijuana revenue in 2020 by $223 million, blowing a major hole in California’s budget.

State Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, is among those concerned by the push for marijuana legalization. Jasinski says he’s unsatisfied with the argument that legalization should be supported to create increased revenue.

Jasinski pointed to two studies published last year that showed a 5-6% increase in the number of car crashes in Washington and Colorado subsequent to legalization. About 14% of the drivers under the influence of marijuana had children in their vehicle at the time of the crash, according to a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“You can’t make a determination based just on the dollar amount,” he said. “You’ve got to act based on what’s right for the state.”

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, pointing to the increase in cannabis-related automotive fatalities

“Simultaneous use is associated with greater harm,” Cooper said. “You may not be drinking in excess but if you’re smoking marijuana as well you might have greater impairment. We’re starting to see that in some of the crashes.”

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.

Impact on crime?

Gallup’s polling data showed that many Americans who support legalization cite as a major reason for their support that legalization would free up police to address other crimes. A 2018 analysis of FBI data for Colorado and Washington by researchers at Washington State University showed that crime clearance rates for some crimes decreased after marijuana was legalized.

Rep. Todd Lippert, D-Northfield, said he is among those who believe that marijuana is taking too much time away from law enforcement. Lippert added that he’s particularly concerned about the racial disparity in marijuana arrests and sentencing.

According to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, an African-American is nearly eight times as likely as a white person to be arrested in Minnesota for marijuana use, even though African-Americans and whites use marijuana at similar rates. That’s more than twice the disparity the ACLU found nationwide.

In an attempt to reduce the disparity, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey directed the city’s Police Department to end marijuana sting operations last year. Frey and critics of the program have argued that such programs often disproportionately target African-American and/or Latino men.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo argued the sting operations had reduced crime and denied that the department had intentionally targeted African-Americans. Arradondo did acknowledge that the vast majority of those arrested were African-American and low income.

The Minnesota Police Chiefs Union has weighed in against the potential legalization of marijuana, along with other police unions nationwide. Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen testified before the Minnesota Senate last year against a marijuana legalization bill that was ultimately defeated in committee along party lines.

Bohlen said while the long-term effects of full legalization aren’t yet clear, law enforcement ultimately views marijuana as a gateway drug that can lead to increased usage of drugs later on. Bohlen fears that legalization and increased usage of marijuana would lead to more mental health issues, more crime and more use of hard drugs.

“I ran a drug task force before I became the chief of Faribault, and didn’t see a lot of good that came out of it,” Bohlen said. “As a police professional for over 30 years, I don’t see a health benefit.”

Its effects

Some studies have linked marijuana use to an increase in the rate of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a particularly strong correlation between increased marijuana use and increased rates of schizophrenia can be found among persons with certain genetic markers.

Bohlen noted that in some states that have legalized marijuana, high prices and taxes have kept demand for marijuana on the black market high. In many cases, people begin consuming synthetic marijuana instead. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, synthetic marijuana is 30 times more likely than regular marijuana to result in an incident requiring emergency treatment.

Smoking marijuana, or inhaling secondhand smoke, can also expose people to significant long term physical health risks, according to the American Lung Association. According to the ALA, marijuana smoke contains many of the same toxins and carcinogens as tobacco smoke. Furthermore, marijuana smokers often inhale longer and deeper, increasing their exposure.

Critics of marijuana legalization are particularly concerned by the effect of increased access to marijuana could have on children. Already, nearly one third of 10th-graders say they’ve tried marijuana at least once in their life, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggested that even using marijuana once or twice can make lead to significant alterations of the adolescent brain. In 2018, a study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that adolescents who frequently used marijuana were more likely than non-users to have lower scores on tests of memory, learning new information, problem solving and information processing.

It’s less clear whether legalizing marijuana actually increases adolescent marijuana usage. A study published earlier this summer in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics analyzed data on 1.4 million high school students from 1991 to 2017 and found the legalization of recreational marijuana to be associated with a decline in marijuana use. Researchers argued that one reason for the decline could be that street dealers were replaced with licensed dispensaries requiring proof of age.

The study’s proponents touted it as the most comprehensive to date, while critics argued it was in conflict other state-level studies which found little evidence of a decline in adolescent marijuana use in the wake of marijuana legalization. Even supporters of marijuana acknowledge that the data is limited because most states which have legalized marijuana have only done so very recently.

Advocates of legal marijuana say that although there may be significant issues to work out with cannabis legalization, they’re confident that the issues can be worked out with proper implementation and regulation.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, says he’s become increasingly convinced that legalizing and regulating marijuana is the way to go. Lesch touted the medicinal benefits of marijuana for many and argued that it would be appropriate to legalize and tax the drug, as is currently done with alcohol.

“There are potential problems with cannabis legalization, but no more than currently exist with alcohol,” Lesch said.


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Community School now offers parenting, Early Childhood classes

Faribault Community School offers a variety of activities and classes to school-age children, but starting this fall, children birth to 5 get a piece of the pie.

And thanks to grant funding from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, these Early Childhood offerings are free and open to anyone in the community.

In February, Faribault Community School received $19,300 in grant funding from SMIF to implement Early Childhood programming and parenting classes in the evenings. The classes begin this month at Jefferson Elementary and Faribault Middle School.

“This [grant] is kind of setting the groundwork,” said Rachael Petersen, Faribault Community School evening programs coordinator. “The grant will expire at the end of January; we’ll see how it goes from there … We’re establishing programs to see how to evaluate the community’s needs. It’s exciting to have all these options right now.”

Beginning Sept. 23, Faribault Community School offers Early Learning Discovery classes from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Mondays at Jefferson Elementary and Tuesdays at Faribault Middle School. Parents have the option to either separate from their children during this period to take a Community School class or stay with their children as they explore and learn.

Petersen said the Early Learning opportunities at the Community School are different than daycare offerings. The hour and a half involves both free play and structured activities that engage children depending on their needs. All independently run by part-time staff members, the classes’ themes change from week to week. Drop-ins are welcome, but Petersen recommends parents pre-register their children at faribault.ce.eleyo.com.

The SMIF grant allowed Faribault Community School to re-purpose one classroom each at Jefferson Elementary and Faribault Middle School for the evening Early Childhood classes. With the SMIF funding, the Community School could purchase supplies needed for infant ages in the evenings. Last year, South Central College assembled and donated Early Learning kits, which Community School can now use at both the Jefferson and Middle School locations.

Another new Early Childhood program offered through Community School, Music Makers, is a Wednesday evening class that exposes young learners to instruments and music in general. Starting Wednesday, the class runs from 5:15 to 6:30 p.m. at Jefferson Elementary.

Parents of early learners also have new opportunities thanks to the SMIF grant. As their children participate in Early Learning Discovery classes Mondays and Tuesdays, parents may participate in a book club, walking club or parenting classes offered during the same time slot. Staff from Fernbrook Family Center will also make appearances at the Community School to help parents improve their understanding of social and emotional parenting aspects.

Petersen also scheduled various speakers through October to offer one-time presentations at Community School. In the coming weeks, those talks include Mindful Parenting by Lisa Humfeld-Wilson of Humfeld Chiropractic and Nutrition Center, How to Build Strong Leaders by Jason Hunt and an etiquette class by Kim Purscell. Northfield psychologists Nate and Laurie Page will also offer a presentation called Shame versus Good Enough Parenting. In the future, Petersen said she’d like to schedule classes on the importance of play, speech development and first aid.

“These classes are designed to be of interest to an early learning parent, but also for all parents, not just [parents of] the youngest,” said Petersen.

The goal of the first round of presenters, said Petersen, is to meet parents’ needs without spreading their already busy schedules too thin. She’d like to see the programs attract 15 to 20 attendees if they were to continue after the grant funding ends.


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State requirements hem in county board during taxation talk

Talking about taxes isn’t fun for anyone. And that includes the Rice County Board of Commissioners.

Despite repeated pleas from its administrator, Sara Folsted, the board — minus Commissioner Galen Malecha who was absent during the Sept. 3 meeting — had difficulty giving her a 2020 levy target to hit.

Folsted startled the board, telling them that if every request she’d received from county staff for 2020 was funded, Rice County would add the equivalent of almost 17 full-time positions and that the levy would skyrocket 18.68% percent. Following discussions with department heads, that figure has dropped by about half, to 9.3%, she said.

Folsted didn’t say how many new positions she’d like to add in 2020, but noted that some of those requested come with funding sources. While others would be partially funded by outside entities, county officials are working to see if full funding can be obtained.

Some of the new positions, if approved, would have an upfront cost, but reduce the need for services going forward, thereby saving money in the long run, according to the administrator.

She pointed to Project Intercept, a program that began early this year and involves voluntary screenings for those jailed in the county to test for chemical or mental health issues. The program allows inmates to receive needed services sooner than before and ends the “revolving door” of criminals coming right back to jail just a few weeks after their release.

County Social Services Director Mark Shaw last year told the Daily News that the program would give arrestees the opportunity to take control of their recovery.

“(They) save costs and make our community better for the future,” Folsted said of the programs, noting the value in being proactive. “If you (just) react, you don’t solve the problem.”

Out of its control

Another issue: the County Attorney’s Office is required to pay for some legal necessities outside its control, including guardians, conservators and bailiffs for jury trials. This year, the county had a two-week criminal trial and a three-week civil trial.

“No one (at the county) is in control of it,” said Rice County Attorney John Fossum, “because people who are in control of it are state employees.”

It’s been an issue for his office for years, he said.

“We can’t not file child protection cases. We can’t not filed paternity cases because there’s going to be a cost.”

County services

Commissioners lamented that while all governmental budgeting is a balancing act, it’s perhaps more so for Minnesota counties as a large portion of its services are required by the state. Some of those come without state funding, putting county taxpayers alone on the hook for those services.

Commenting on the proposed 9.3% levy increase, Commissioner Jeff Docken felt that “there might be a little shaving here and there, but I’m guessing not a lot.”

He later suggested Folsted keep the tax rate flat, a decision he felt would have little impact on taxpayers due to industrial growth in the county.

On the other hand, Commissioner Dave Miller wondered aloud about Rice County having one of the lowest (85th of 87 counties) tax rates in the state.

“That’s something to be proud of,” he said, “but at the same time are we providing the services for our citizens?”

The board is expected to approve a preliminary 2020 tax levy at its Sept. 24 meeting.


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Assistant Rice County attorneys approve unionization

Last week, six eligible assistant county attorneys within the Rice County Attorney’s office voted to unionize.

AFSCME Council 65 will represent the assistant county attorneys as they enter into the bargaining process with their employers, the Rice County Board of Commissioners. Based in Nashwauk, Minnesota, Local 65 represents 13,500 public employees throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

“We’re excited to add them to our AFSCME family, so we’re going to get working on it quickly,” said AFSCME organizing director Jo Parr.

Parr has worked with the assistant county attorneys for the last few months, helping them to navigate the ins and outs of the unionization process. She said that AFSCME Council 65 is already working with the group to come up with proposals that could form the core of a collective bargaining agreement.

Parr emphasized that it’s important for county attorneys offices to keep wages competitive and maintain a pleasant work atmosphere. Otherwise, more experienced and well-versed attorneys are likely to depart for private practice.

With the approval of the union, an order of Maintenance of Status Quo by the Bureau of Mediation Services was lifted. If the county board wishes to make any alteration to the terms of condition of employment, such changes must be negotiated with the union.

Public attorneys are considered essential employees under state statute, meaning that they are prohibited from going on strike. If the attorneys’ union and the county board can’t come to an agreement on this contract or future contracts, either the union or the county board can ask the Bureau of Mediation Services to appoint a third party mediator.

County employees are also entitled to request a third party arbitrator if they wish to file a grievance request. Bureau of Mediation Services Commissioner Janet Johnson says it’s not at all uncommon for her department to receive a request for mediation.

“We receive probably a minimum of 1,000 requests for mediation from parties around the state,” said Johnson.

Minnesota has a strong tradition of unionization, especially in the public sector. Overall 54% of government employees are unionized, and 90% of Minnesota’s state workforce is unionized. Minnesota has the seventh-highest rate of union membership of any state, and the highest percentage of any non-coastal state.

The state’s public defenders are also unionized.


A large crowd of shoppers made their way to the Rice County Historical Society’s Fall Flea Market. (Andrew Deziel/Faribault Daily News)


mikerandleman / By MIKE RANDLEMAN mrandleman@faribault.com 

Faribault’s Alex Gardner, seen Aug. 30 vs. Austin, led the Falcons in rushing for the second straight game, recording 46 yards Friday at Winona. (Mike Randleman/Faribault Daily News)