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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.

Task force completes police policy review, supports body cameras
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A citizen-led task force has completed its review of Police Department policies and is signaling its support for body cameras.

The Northfield City Council formed the group last year to review updates related to police reform and related department policies identified in the recent updating of the department’s employee handbook, a process that started last April through public safety policy and training company Lexipol. The draft handbook is intended to include more recent state and federal statutes and current law enforcement best practices.

The task force reviewed nearly 30 Northfield Police Department policies, including use of force, civil disputes, First Amendment assemblies, mobile video recording, searches and seizures, and officer response to calls. The policies were grouped into weekly themes and sent to members at least 10 days before each meeting for review. The group includes 13 members, including two city councilors and 11 community members representing different stakeholders.

The handbook includes 21st century policing recommendations. Among them: the department separate federal immigration enforcement from routine policing for civil enforcement and non-serious crime, implement prioritize de-escalation and a guardian mindset to mass demonstrations, and train all officers in cultural diversity and related topics.

Under the department’s use of force policy, any officers present or observing coworkers using force beyond what is deemed unreasonable must intervene and report to a supervisor as soon as feasible. The draft policy calls for the deputy chief to prepare an annual report listing use of force incidents, naming any trends in the use of force by members, identifying training and equipment needs, and recommending policy revisions.

During a Feb. 16 City Council meeting, Police Chief Mark Elliott noted he has the final say in department policy decisions, similar to other city leaders. However, he added that a majority of requests from the task force were implemented. In other cases, suggestions were already covered in the employee handbook. Changes requested cannot modify those mandated at the state and federal levels.

Carleton Vice President for Student Life & Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston said there was “spirited discussion” about biased-based policing. The policy prohibits officers in engaging in such an approach. One task force member reportedly spoke of a personal experience involving bias-based policing. Elliott said officers must be aware of the presence of bias in the community and ways they can combat that.

Bridgewater Elementary Principal Nancy Antoine, an African American on the task force, spoke highly of the Police Department’s approach once she reported receiving hate mail.

To Elliott, the task force adds legitimacy to the policies and enhances citizen confidence that the Police Department is working well.

Body cameras

Northfield’s Police Department hasn’t gotten funding for cameras despite repeated requests. This year, as the department and Elliott seek to have body cameras in place, the chief is also asking for $40,000 for evidence/IT support, and the potential for a half- or full-time hire.

The council has contemplated the idea of adding body cameras over the previous months. Councilor Suzie Nakasian, who has frequently questioned whether the expenditure is worth making despite her support for the underlying concept, requested task force members offer their opinions on the cameras.

Task force member and youth advocate Ben Heath said the body cameras would provide extra protection in case of a traumatic situation.

St. Olaf Vice President for Student Life Hassel Morrison noted the college equips its officers with cameras and also places the devices on their cars and vehicles. To him, it’s better for the city to have body cameras and not need them than to not have them and face a possible lawsuit in which the devices would prove beneficial.

To fellow task force member Kelly McCarthy, chair of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, body cameras help to fund “transparency” and “accountability.”

The council has a public input session planned during the March 2 council meeting.


St. Olaf housing project approved, council nixes more parking
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The Northfield City Council on Feb. 16 narrowly issued a conditional use permit for a 440-bed St. Olaf College housing project but rejected the addition of parking.

The pending development includes a 300-bed residential hall designed as four separate houses with interconnected hallways and lounges. Another 140 beds would be added in 14 townhouses along St. Olaf Avenue near the college’s west entrance. All units are intended for college juniors and seniors.

The council in December unanimously approved the rezoning of nine parcels west of Lincoln Street North and on the north side of campus to make way for the project. The Northfield Planning Commission recommended the council approve the project’s conditional use permit and rezone the nine parcels in November, but rejected the addition of 28 parking stalls north of the proposed development, an increase the college says is needed for overflow student and event parking. Council action means the college can replace 161 existing stalls for now.

The council’s 4-3 vote came after St. Olaf Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Jan Hanson said students, because of a lack of existing parking space, sometimes park in staff stalls at night before moving their vehicles to city parking lots the following morning. Voting against the motion were Mayor Rhonda Pownell and Councilors Brad Ness and George Zuccolotto,

Despite remarking that removing 28 of the parking spaces would not be an “ideal situation,” Hanson said the project would still take place. Those parking spaces could be developed in other locations on campus grounds without council approval.

Councilor Suzie Nakasian said her vote was with a focus on “sustainable transit solutions,” a plan consistent with the city’s goal to develop infrastructure to allow for less reliance on vehicular traffic.

Fellow Councilor Jessica Peterson White said she also supported removing of the parking spaces from the plan, noting that option aligned with the recommendations of the Planning Commission last year. Councilor Clarice Grenier Grabau asked whether the college could increase its shuttle service and help students find new travel options.

St. Olaf Vice President for Student Life Hassel Morrison worried about the possible impact transportation challenges would pose for students who bring cars to school or drive off-campus for employment, volunteer opportunities, or paid or unpaid internship work. He also expressed concern that having the parking be further away from residence halls would pose challenges for students with preexisting physical conditions.

Ness cited a traffic study that found the additional parking wouldn’t create much of a traffic change on Lincoln Street and St. Olaf Avenue. He predicted that not allowing the spaces would ensure that cars park to the east of Lincoln.

Mayor Rhonda Pownell said the 28 spaces were important for students and visitors for classes and events, especially with the city’s relative lack of transit options.

The townhouses would replace aging residences, ranging from 78 to more than 110 years old, that the college has acquired over the years. The majority of the school’s residence halls were built between 1956-63. However, the college has reportedly faced a shortage of more than 400 on-campus beds since the 1990s as enrollment has outpaced residential development. To combat the shortage, St. Olaf has sometimes had up to three students living in the same room and allowed several hundred to live off campus. According to the college, the project is also needed for St. Olaf to compete in recruiting. The more than $60 million development is expected to come on the land west of Lincoln Avenue that used to hold the school’s Honor Houses and the President’s House.

As part of the project, sidewalks on the north and south sides of St. Olaf Avenue adjacent to the project area will be widened to 9 feet. Two crosswalks will be marked to connect the townhomes and residence halls across St. Olaf Avenue.

Plans call for occupancy by fall 2022.

Archer House owners hope to learn building fate within a month
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The owners of the Archer House, the downtown landmark heavily damaged in a devastating fire in November, hope to learn of the building’s fate within a month.

The iconic building, built along the east bank of the Cannon River more than 140 years ago, sustained heavy smoke and water damage throughout the building in the Nov. 12 fire. Owned by Rebound Partners, it initially appeared to be a total loss. Gaping holes in the building are still visible.

The investigation is reportedly in the final stages. This week, the fire investigation team is coordinating the removal of certain items, using heavy equipment around the building, and possibly inflicting additional structural damage to extract certain items, including a piece of equipment in Smoqehouse that investigators believe caused the fire.

“Since (the fire), the primary focus of activity on the site has been the ongoing investigation of the origin and cause of the fire,” the owners of the Archer House River Inn wrote in a Feb. 22 press release. “This investigation is being led by a professional fire investigator hired by the insurer for the Archer House River Inn.”

The owners wrote that once the fate of the building is determined, they “will be able to begin in earnest the process of assessing future options for the site which could include a wide range of possibilities including, but not limited to restoration, replacement or redevelopment.”

“We appreciate the outpouring of support and encouragement during this difficult time of a significant and important asset of our community being ‘silent and dark’ as the insurance process continues and eventually concludes,” they wrote.

Fire crews reportedly used more than 2 million gallons of water to combat the blaze over the course of nearly 24 hours. In some places, especially Smoqehouse and the four levels above, total damage was sustained. In other spots, the damage wasn’t as extensive but still included smoke and water impacts.

The fire came after months of renovations to public spaces within the Archer House and revenue losses caused by COVID-19. Renovations were also ongoing in the building’s Tavern of Northfield after a June 2019 kitchen fire at Chapati caused extensive water damage to the downstairs space.