Minnesota Medical Association Endorses Decriminalizing Drugs

The Minnesota Medical Association (MMA) is endorsing broad drug decriminalization, expungements for low-level possession and the promotion of statewide harm reduction programs.

A resolution approved this month by the association recommends the “removal of criminal penalties for the possession of a small quantity of illicit drug for personal use and/or the possession of drug paraphernalia.”

It also calls for the “creation of administrative panels which may render treatment referrals and civil penalties to offenders of simple possession.” The dual approach of decriminalization with treatment referral closely models the harm reduction policy that’s been in place in Portugal, for example.

The association’s Board of Trustees passed the measure submitted for consideration by the MMA Policy Council, which studied harm reduction models as part of a workgroup that was formed earlier this year. The result of the panel’s work was a multi-part proposal that the full association has now adopted.

The proposal—which was approved for consideration by MMA members through on online portal in a 219-34 vote—also urges “increased investment in statewide harm reduction and medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) programs,” as well as the release of those currently incarcerated over low-level drug possession and expungements for such offenses.

A non-public draft of the full proposal that was obtained by Marijuana Moment states that the MMA “recognizes that criminal penalties for simple possession, or the possession of a small quantity of illicit drug for personal use and/or the possession of drug paraphernalia, are only justified if they yield a net benefit to population health.”

“Criminal penalties for simple possession yield one potential benefit to population health in its claimed ability to deter drug use. However, there is insufficient evidence to support this claim,” it says. “Criminal penalties for simple possession yield numerous, real harms to population health. These harms include, but are not limited to, arrests, convictions, incarcerations, criminal records, and diverted public investment.”

“Accordingly, the MMA concludes that criminal penalties for simple possession in Minnesota are unjustified,” the document says.

This appears to be the first time that a state medical association has formally backed this particular drug reform policy—a strong reflection of the shift in public sentiment away from criminalization models for substance use issues.

Of course, the proposal isn’t binding on the state legislature, but it could influence drug policy conversations as lawmakers prepare for the 2023 session.

To that end, the proposal states that MMA’s work can involve educating policymakers “of the inefficacy of criminal penalties for simple possession as a deterrent of drug use” and “the health harms associated with imposing ineffective criminal penalties for simple possession.”

Education could also touch on the “costs of criminalizing drug use (the cost of incarceration) versus the much lower cost of increasing access to treatment for substance use disorders,” the draft says.

MMA also urges “policymakers and state agencies to monitor data out of Portugal, and other jurisdictions which have decriminalized simple possession, that illustrate how decriminalization may or may not correlate with trends in drug-induced morbidity and mortality.”

The endorsement has been months in the works, starting with the MMA Policy Council’s decision to create an “Illicit Drug Harm Reduction & Decriminalization Work Group in May, after members explored related issues and were presented with a comprehensive slideshow detailing drug use and policy trends.

Relatedly, Oregon voters took the historic step of decriminalizing possession of all drugs at the ballot in 2020—and a poll released in September shows that the policy continues to enjoy majority support in the state.

Nationwide, a strong majority of Americans, including most Republicans, support drug decriminalization, according to a poll released in April. There’s also majority support overall for allowing the operation of overdose prevention centers where people can use illicit substances in a medically supervised setting and receive treatment resources.

Support for the decriminalization proposal increased by 10 percentage points overall since voters were asked about it last year with a different question in a prior Data for Progress poll.

Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said recently that the ongoing criminalization of people over drug use needs to end in order to effectively address substance misuse and the stigmatization of addiction.

But public opinion isn’t always aligned with medical associations. And marijuana prohibitionists in particular have put significant stock in what those organizations say, claiming for example that no major association has backed legalization—despite the fact that the California Medical Association did endorse the reform back in 2011.

Back in Minnesota, MMA hasn’t approved a cannabis legalization proposal yet. But the policy is a priority for Gov. Tim Walz (D), who is already planning for a marijuana victory with Democrats newly in control of the legislature, saying recently that it will be “one of the first” bills to pass in 2023.

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