The Minnesota Supreme Court released a decision Wednesday in “Minnesota v. Loveless,” which could have significant implications related to the possession and sale of marijuana and hemp in the state.
The court ruled that a defendant can challenge the sufficiency of the state’s evidence based on a legal argument known as a statutory-interpretation-based amelioration. In short, this allows defendants to benefit from changes in the law that make their actions less severe, even if a defendant did not raise it in the district court.
Additionally, the court ruled that a 2019 amendment to exclude hemp from the definition of marijuana in Minnesota law decriminalizes the possession of hemp, allowing defendants convicted of marijuana offenses to obtain relief.
Potentially the largest impact for cannabis users, however, is that the court also overturned an Appeals Court decision, finding that the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of a substance exceeds 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis to obtain a conviction for a fifth-degree controlled substance crime under Minnesota law.
This means prosecutors will have to show not just the presence of THC, but that the exact amount exceeds the legal maximum. With state testing labs in Minnesota already bogged down, this could be yet another reason for county attorneys to dismiss many minor cannabis-related offenses throughout the state.
In this case, the evidence was insufficient to support the defendant’s convictions for fifth-degree controlled substance offenses because the state offered inadequate proof that the delta-9 THC concentration of the plant material and liquid mixture in vaporizer cartridges found in the defendant’s possession exceeded 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.
Three of the Justices (Gildea, Anderson, and McKeig) dissented, arguing that the majority misapplied the doctrine by expanding its scope beyond legislative changes that reduce the punishment. The newly added language decriminalizing hemp possession did not mention punishment directly and thus did not qualify under this doctrine. The judge also noted that the majority’s decision infringed on the powers of the legislative and executive branches.
This ruling has important implications for the enforcement of Minnesota’s drug laws, particularly with regard to the distinction between marijuana and hemp and the burden of proof required to secure a conviction for a controlled substance offense.
While the legislative and executive branches have been making moves toward changing policies related to cannabis, this decision by the Supreme Court is an important reminder that the judicial branch has a vital role in shaping cannabis policy in Minnesota.