In many Minnesota cities, the glory daze of legal, recreational, public marijuana use might be all too short, briefer even than the famously curt Kardashian-Humphries nuptials of 2011. New rules threaten to make it all but illegal again to smoke a joint outside, broaching a “criminalization” problem that only just seemed solved.
When recreational cannabis was legalized earlier this year, it officially became legal to smoke marijuana all through the state, leaving local ordinances about public space and public smoking up to individual municipalities. The legalization was a popular move for many reasons, for everyone from regular users, to those against the so-called war on drugs, to those favoring economics growth in a local industry.
This week, however, St. Paul might join a growing list of Minnesota cities that will stub out public pot smoking. The City Council is floating a new rule banning smoking of any kind in city parks and on city-regulated land. For some at City Hall, the ordinance reflects common-sense public health, while others see it as a step backward, criminalizing everyday, legal behavior in ways that might harm the city’s working class.
Pot penalties in St. Paul Parks?
In mid-August, Ward 3 council member Chris Tolbert introduced a draft ordinance that would effectively ban all smoking in city parks and on any city-owned (or “regulated”) land.
While St. Paul already prohibits smoking (including cannabis) near certain places like playgrounds or bleachers, the new rule would go further. It would ban smoking of any kind in any city park, covering everything from cigars on the golf course to vapes at the skate park.
“We do not have smoking bans at parks and other public places,” explained Tolbert, introducing the proposal. “This strictly deals with banning smoking tobacco, cannabis, vapes, or cigars in any public places, including parks.”
This ordinance, and others introduced and adopted around the state in cities like Duluth and Lakeville is a big deal because smoking cannabis remains by far the most popular way that cannabis products are used in the U.S. The stakes are high; for most people, using pot in city spaces will once again be a criminal activity.
“What if my constituents and their friends live in an apartment?” Ward 4 council member Mitra Jalali told me, referring to smoking bans in apartments. “They want to go to a picnic table at Como, and there’s literally no one around, barbeque, and also have a joint. If there’s no rule against that now, should it be a petty misdemeanor? I don’t think it should.”
Under a friendly amendment, Jalali had the hearing moved to this Wednesday, to gather more input from the public during a time when elected officials would be in attendance.
Equal treatment of secondhand smoke?
North American cities have taken different approaches to regulating outdoor pot use. Denver, for example, has made it illegal to smoke pot outdoors, a fact that doesn’t seem to have much effect on the distinctive odor of the downtown sidewalks. Apart from the skunky smell of marijuana smoke (allegedly wafting over one of the courts at the U.S. Open), is the difference just a matter of taste? Or are there public health reasons beyond stigma to be specifically concerned about pot smoke?
Diving into the research, it turns out to be largely tautological: Smoke is smoke. While every study readily admits that there needs to be more research on the specific effects of cannabis smoke, the verdict is that it’s pretty similar to tobacco (and most other kinds) of smoke. For example, there’s a 2020 Berkeley study that shows indoor bong smoke is very bad for you, akin to a wildfire outbreak or a backyard campfire.
But there’s no reason to think that outdoor cannabis smoke is any worse than cigarettes, for secondhand exposure. Apart from the jokes from editorial cartoonists, the public health crisis around pot is nothing new. As one 2017 NIH study argues (after admitting that more research is needed): “alignment of tobacco and marijuana smoking bylaws may result in the most effective public policies.”
Renters vs. homeowners
Another wrinkle in Minnesota’s cannabis conundrum revolves around housing, thanks to a legislative detail added during last spring’s session. The state cannabis law creates specifically different rules from people who own their home versus people who rent a place to live.
Currently, landlords can forbid smoking in their property, but it’s an individual choice. But Minnesota state law is set to completely ban smoking and vaping of legal cannabis in multifamily buildings beginning in 2025. In St. Paul, where a majority of the population rents their housing, that makes pot legalization a mixed bag for regular cannabis users: effectively banned, despite being legalized.
“We’re really concerned about this approaching situation where a majority of residents functionally have nowhere to smoke cannabis legally,” said Jalali. “If this local ordinance passes, not only do they have nowhere they can use it, they also face a criminal penalty.
Jalali pointed out that the $300 fine associated with a petty misdemeanor can spiral out of control for working class people, making it harder to get employment or housing. At the August City Council meeting, President Amy Brendmoen agreed she was frustrated, pointing out that the lack of an “administrative citation” option for the city left the council with few good choices. Petty misdemeanor charges are the least worst option for police, and nobody’s idea of a perfect solution.
Striking the right balance
I’m old enough to remember when St. Paul passed the first anti-indoor smoking ordinance, and the firestorm that it whipped up still rings in my ears. (One local bar purchased urinal cakes with the sponsoring City Council member’s face printed on them.) In retrospect, the backlash was nonsense. Banning indoor smoking was a wildly successful policy, leading the way for statewide changes.
Here, the state has already weighed in, leaving cities to make what should be carefully considered decisions. The line between public health and personal health is inherently a gray area, especially when considering how the criminal justice system works in practice.
I believe there are two principles that Minnesota cities should follow. First, any public policy should treat pot equally with smoking nicotine products. The state Legislature legalized the use of cannabis, including in its popular smoked form. Ending the stigma around the use of marijuana needs to be taken seriously.
Second, cities should balance public health with social burdens caused by enforcement. This is a lesson that governments at all levels learned the hard way during COVID. After all, from a purely public health perspective, an indoor mask mandate still makes sense today, yet almost nobody is suggesting this because of the other problems a mandate would cause. The last thing a city like St. Paul needs is another avenue for harassing working class renters, the folks most likely to be targeted by this rule.
Your mileage on these rules may vary. Cities without meaningful sidewalks or rental housing — of which there are many — will likely see fewer downsides to a blanket provision in city parks and on city land. In a city where public space is such a big part of everyday life, with large numbers of renters long accustomed to smoking weed (legal or not), it’s another story.
The overall success of the ordinance depends on how much it’s enforced. In this case, the best case scenario might be “never,” at least not by anyone other than the members of the public through harsh stares or neighborly pleas. The police should not be handing out $300 fines for smoking cigarettes or anything else.
“[If] we’re trying to help young people not experience cannabis smoke, we should thoughtfully tailor it to places most likely to be youth specific,” said Council Member Mitra Jalali. “The rest we have to determine more carefully with our community. What’s been proposed right now is something so broad.”
After the hearing, Tolbert stated he would welcome any amendments from other members of the council that might, as he put it, “tell me where you want people to smoke on public property.”
It was always going to be a bumpy road for a state with such a prudish legacy to embrace legal weed. It’s a sea change in a state that’s the last refuge of 3.2 beer and the birthplace of Andrew Volstead. The public hearing is set to take place Wednesday afternoon at City Hall at 3:30 p.m.