St. Paul is now poised to become the latest, and largest, Minnesota city to enact new rules against smoking marijuana in public since the state legalized the substance for recreational use earlier this year.
But the ban that St. Paul City Council members approved by a 4-3 vote Wednesday is more limited than its author originally envisioned. As a result, smokers can still legally light up in a wide range of outdoor public places in St. Paul, including on many sidewalks and streets.
The new ordinance will make all parts of city parks off-limits for smoking and vaping, expanding an existing ban that only bars tobacco use near “youth activity areas,” like playgrounds and athletic fields. Smoking within 25 feet of the entrance to workplaces, business or indoor public spaces would also be illegal.
Mayor Melvin Carter plans to sign the ordinance, according to his spokesman, Kamal Baker.
“This is about secondhand smoke and secondhand smoke isn’t just dangerous on a playground,” Ward 2 Councilmember Rebecca Noecker said at a meeting earlier this month. “It’s dangerous on a trail, it’s dangerous on a beach, on a bikeway and in the big open green spaces.”
How the city will enforce the new ban
State law allows local governments that choose to regulate public marijuana use to charge violators with a petty misdemeanor, an infraction on par with a speeding ticket.
If enacted, St. Paul’s new language strips out any reference to the petty misdemeanor, and instead would call for police to enforce the ban “through education and voluntary compliance” – basically, to first ask someone to stop smoking, and only issue a ticket if they refuse.
Council members also voted to authorize enforcement of the ordinance through an “administrative citation” – an infraction that wouldn’t show up on a criminal record. But St. Paul’s charter doesn’t currently grant city officials authority to actually issue these citations.
The scaled-down ordinance
The council’s final split vote on the ordinance came despite efforts to reach a consensus. Ward 3 Councilmember Chris Tolbert agreed to amend his original proposal, which would have banned cannabis use on any city-controlled property in St. Paul.
Tolbert’s original language mirrored new ordinances in other cities, such as Lakeville, Detroit Lakes and Alexandria, where marijuana use is now effectively limited to private residences and yards. Even then, rental property owners can ban tenants from smoking recreational marijuana in their units.
The scaled-down version of St. Paul’s ordinance looks more like a recently-enacted smoking ban in Duluth, which was also limited to public parks.
In a statement, Baker said Mayor Carter “appreciates the revisions based on community feedback.”
The mayor “looks forward to working with council members and the St. Paul Police Department to ensure that this policy is equitably administered,” Baker wrote.
Why opponents still worry about equity
But opponents believe the pared-down version still goes too far, saying that penalizing someone for smoking in a remote area of a park was unnecessary.
“I would be supportive of keeping the status quo, which is actually not yielding any problems,” said Ward 4 Councilmember Mitra Jalali, who argued at a Sept. 13 hearing for a “more complex” analysis of the public health questions involved.
In 2020, an ACLU study found that police were five times more likely to arrest Black Minnesotans for marijuana possession than white residents, despite national statistics suggesting Black and white people use at roughly the same rates.
Post-legalization, advocates worry that overly-restrictive laws against public use will allow these old disparities to creep back. In 2014, in the early days of legalized marijuana in Washington state, police in Seattle issued a disproportionate number of public smoking tickets to Black men in parts of town known as homelessness hotspots — though since the pandemic’s onset, police have issued only a handful of tickets.
“It’s really important that we not just reduce this conversation to smoke and public health,” said Jalali, who argued that considering how “racial bias plays out in public space” was also a critical factor to weigh.
Ward 6 Councilmember Nelsie Yang contended on Wednesday that the new ordinance fails to “address the constitutional damage the racism that many folks of color in low-income communities have faced” when recreational marijuana was illegal.
Secondhand smoke concerns aside, Tolbert countered that the new ban on marijuana use in parks mirrors existing laws against public alcohol use.
“It’s not legal to drink a beer in a park, except in certain circumstances or certain spots,” Tolbert said during the mid-September hearing. “I think it makes sense to regulate in this area as well.”
The new ordinance does build in the possibility for exceptions. The city’s parks director would be able to set aside a designated smoking area in a park, as could the owner of a private property.
The ordinance would also allow for “sacred, traditional use of tobacco,” either as part of an “American Indian cultural practice” or a religious ceremony.
Voting for the ordinance were Tolbert, Noecker and Council President Amy Brendmoen (Ward 5).
Voting against the ordinance were Jalali, Yang and Ward 1 Councilmember Russell Balenger.