Minnesota lawmakers passed a mammoth public safety budget bill that included little-noticed provisions that will legalize possession of drug paraphernalia and any drug residue that might be in it. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Minnesota lawmakers passed a mammoth public safety budget bill that included little-noticed provisions that will legalize possession of drug paraphernalia and any drug residue that might be in it.
The bill — signed by Gov. Tim Walz on Friday — allows people to possess hypodermic syringes or needles; removes the cap on the number of syringes pharmacists can sell people without a prescription; and no longer bans possession of products used to test the “strength, effectiveness or purity” of a controlled substance. It would still be illegal to manufacture drug paraphernalia for delivery.
The bill also allows community-based public health programs to provide sterile needles, syringes and other injection equipment — in addition to educating people on overdose prevention and safe injection practices.
The paraphernalia provisions are among an array of new policies in the bill that seek to make Minnesota’s criminal justice system less punitive and more rehabilitative, including cutting prison time for people who seek drug treatment and other services while locked up.
Syringe service programs have been operating in Minnesota; this makes it clear they’re legal, according to Kurtis Hanna, a drug law reform lobbyist.
Hanna said Minnesota will be the first state to fully legalize the delivery and possession of all drug paraphernalia, even if it has controlled substance residue on it. When people don’t have access to clean supplies, they share needles and diseases spread more easily.
“It’s a humongous deal,” he said. “It allows individuals in Minnesota to not be afraid of keeping a needle that they just used in their pocket so they can return it to the syringe services provider that they got it from.”
Currently, it’s a petty misdemeanor for a first offense, but there have been cases where people have been charged with felonies for having meth residue on a pipe, Hanna said.
Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, sponsored the bill and others meant to help people of color, who have been disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system. She is a Black woman and daughter of an immigrant.
“You can’t criminalize addiction,” she said.
Hanna believes the state shouldn’t take a criminal justice approach to drug use, but instead make it safer and reduce the harms associated with it. To make it safe “while they’re still deciding” whether to get treatment “is a much better approach than this abstinence-only mindset that we’ve had for a long time.”
“The War on Drugs is an abysmal failure and is worse than the alternative, which is to allow adults to have safe access to controlled substances,” Hanna said.
Edward Krumpotich, policy consultant for the Drug Policy Alliance and the National Harm Reduction Coalition, helped write the bill.
A couple of states have legalized drug paraphernalia, he said, but his group believes Minnesota will be the first to legalize paraphernalia with drug residue. This is important because people may go to a community center to get a syringe, but many are afraid to return them with residue, he said.
Removing that fear will make it more likely that someone with a substance use disorder will interact with people who can help them. “We need to bring them back to people who care about them,” he said. “Then you create reciprocity. They won’t fear being jailed for a disease.”
He would know: He shot dope for many years and ended up homeless in the Twin Cities.
Krumpotich was coaching sports and teaching high school social studies, for which he was acclaimed with a “teacher of the year” award in Maryland.
“I was also living a lie at that time,” he said.
He was a closeted gay man with a drug habit — using meth on the weekends and coming down to go to school on Monday.
“Meth was my love and my demon,” Krumpotich said. “It was the thing that saved me from the traumas of my childhood.”
Then he contracted HIV from a dirty syringe and lost his job. He moved to Minnesota in 2013 to seek treatment.
He worked as a substitute teacher for about six months, but intermittently used drugs and ended up homeless in the Twin Cities for six years. He rode the light rail at night to stay warm.
“The homeless population took care of me because they were my family,” Krumpotich said.
He eventually was prescribed Adderall to get off methamphetamine. After a sober home denied him the medicine, he said he relapsed and nearly died.
“Now I live a life with a stimulant,” he said. “The key for me was in treating my mental health.”
People told him he wasn’t sober for using Adderall, but he stood up for himself, and “found the voice of the guy my students loved.”
“It was one of the only things that worked for me,” he said. “I had my family, dignity and life back and from there on, I dedicated my life to fighting for those who were left voiceless like me.”
Krumpotich now works as a suicide de-escalator in Grand Rapids. After his experience with dirty syringes, he ventured into public policy, forming a harm reduction collaborative that supported the legislation.
They believe the legislation will improve the health of drug users, reduce the spread of infections, reduce overdoses, and help shepherd people into treatment.
The ideas were “incredibly well received” in committee hearings, Krumpotich said.
Turns out, he’s still a good teacher.
“We were surprised how many people believed the science,” he said.
New users of syringe services programs are five times more likely to try treatment and three times more likely to stop using drugs than those who don’t use the programs, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Krumpotich said that’s because they’re exposed to a caring system.
“We want them to know they’re loved… and can choose recovery,” he said. “If I had a syringe program when I got HIV I wouldn’t have (contracted) it.”
Even Republicans like Rep. Walter Hudson, R-Albertville, support a less punitive approach to drug users, during committee debate.
“We’re dealing with people who have a health issue — a mental health issue — physical health issue, and if they’re victimizing anyone, it’s themselves,” Hudson said during a March 17 committee hearing. Not all the Republicans agreed; some said spending time in jail can be the push they need to get help.
Krumpotich estimates the state of Minnesota expended millions of dollars on him as he went in and out of 40 treatment centers, 30 detox centers and had dozens of overdoses, psychiatric visits and surgeries for abscesses.
He believes the bill will save other people’s lives.
“Minnesota saved my life,” he said. “The least that I could do for this state was fight for it.”
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