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Citing racial disparities, Minneapolis police will stop low-level marijuana stings

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, left, said Thursday that "we will discontinue specific, low-level marijuana enforcement" in the wake of sting operations that resulted in disproportionate arrests of black people. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune/AP)

Police in Minneapolis will no longer conduct stings for low-level marijuana offenses after a report showed that nearly everyone arrested during the enforcement actions this year was black.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey ordered police to stop the stings after the Hennepin County public defender's office reported in a court motion that of the 47 people arrested during them this year, 46 were black.

"We will discontinue specific, low-level marijuana enforcement, and I agree with the mayor's decision," said Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. Frey has also told the department to stop undercover operations aimed specifically at marijuana sales.

The motion, written by Hennepin County public defender Jess Braverman in the case of a woman arrested in a sting, said that the police department has been seeking out black men during the stings.

"Officers have directly asked black men to facilitate drug deals with other black men, and have then requested that the facilitator be charged with sale," Braverman wrote. "Officers are seeking out extremely low-level marijuana transactions with people of color and are then arresting and booking the sellers and submitting the cases for felony charging."

The white person who was arrested, Braverman wrote, approached police and tried to facilitate a drug deal.

The move comes as many cities are choosing not to charge low-level drug offenders or are decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. Recreational use of the drug is legal in nine states and the District, but not in Minnesota. Police have said they will otherwise enforce marijuana laws.

Convicted of a marijuana crime in California? It might go away, thanks to legal pot.

Minneapolis has reduced penalties for marijuana possession but has not decriminalized the drug. Frey said in a statement that marijuana should be a "lowest level enforcement priority" and that it should be legalized statewide.

"That support for full legalization, however, does not negate the need for our officers to make the necessary arrests to get guns off our streets and end the sale of life-threatening narcotic drugs like heroin," Frey said. "The fact that racial disparities are so common nationwide in the enforcement of marijuana laws is one of the reasons I support full legalization.”

In California, thousands of people are eligible to have their low-level drug convictions vacated as a provision of the state's legalization law. State officials hope to reverse decades of marijuana convictions that can make it difficult for people to gain meaningful employment and disproportionately affect low-income minorities.

Arradondo said the department "wishes to be a partner" with efforts to reduce the number of young black men entering the criminal justice system by providing them with alternatives, such as diversion or drug treatment.

He said black men who feel that selling drugs is "their only choice to survive and provide for themselves" deeply concern him "as a chief and as a citizen."

"I never want the MPD to contribute to a sense of hopelessness in our community," Arradondo said.

In a statement, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the stings occurred without his knowledge. Freeman said his office has been offering diversion for sting cases, and a quarter of the 47 cases already have been dismissed. He said prosecutors no longer will charge sting cases and will review those that are pending.