Drug Charges in Minnesota – A Big Break for Some Cases

Minnesota’s criminal law is pretty hard on drug crimes.  As of July 2023, over 1,300 people in Minnesota’s prisons were there because of drug offenses.  That’s nearly 1 in every 5!  Although sentencing reform has become a hot topic in recent years, sentences for drug crimes can remain very harsh.

Luckily, these serious penalties mostly apply to repeat offenders or those involved in the manufacture or sale of controlled substances.  For some offenders, Minnesota law actually provides a second chance!  This break, called “Discharge and Dismissal” is found in Chapter 152.18 of Minnesota’s drug code.  Read on to learn more about how it works and who can take advantage of this opportunity.

152.18 Discharge and Dismissal of Drug Charges

This provision has actually been around since 1971, but over the years has expanded significantly.  Today the law generally applies to individuals accused of lower-level drug possession crimes AND who have limited criminal histories.  For individuals who qualify, it provides an opportunity to avoid having a criminal conviction on your record altogether!  Even better, for people who qualify this benefit is automatic.  It does not require the agreement of the prosecutor, and the judge does not have a choice either.  The statute says that if a person qualifies, the judge SHALL follow the statute.  For those interested, the statute can be found here. But before jumping into what that means, let’s first look at who qualifies.

Who Qualifies?

The statute covers four different types of drug charges:

  1. Third Degree Possession – This charge generally applies to individuals accused of possessing ten grams or more of narcotic drugs other than heroin (such as methamphetamine or cocaine), three grams or more of heroin, or 50 or more “dosage units” for drugs packaged in individualized packages (such as pills).  The weight threshold is lower if the possession occurs within certain areas, such as a school zone, a park zone, or a drug treatment facility.
  2. Fourth Degree Possession – This charge generally applies to individuals who possess 10 dosage units or more of phencyclidine (PCP), or who possess any amount of a controlled substance with intent to sell it.
  3. Fifth Degree Possession – This charge is often used to address people who are accused of possessing any amount of controlled substance.  There are no minimum weight requirements, so this charge can be used against people who possess even a very small amount of controlled substance.
  4. Possession of Schedule V Controlled Substance / Possession of Synthetic Cannabinoids – This provision addresses “other” controlled substance crimes.  According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Schedule V controlled substances have a low potential for abuse, have widespread use for accepted medical treatments, and are unlikely to lead to physical or psychological dependence.  Often this provision is used for individuals who possess otherwise legal substances without a prescription.  Cough syrup with codeine is one example.

In addition to applying to only certain drug charges, Minnesota Statute 152.18 also applies only to certain individuals.  To qualify, a person must:

  1. Not previously have participated in a criminal diversion program; and
  2. Not previously had a case discharged under Minnesota Statute 152.18; and
  3. Not previously been convicted of a felony drug offense unless at least ten years have passed since being discharged from the previous sentence.  “Discharged” means either release from prison or the end of probation; and
  4. Not previously been convicted of any felony offense or a gross misdemeanor level drug offense.

So My Drug Case Qualifies – Now What?

For individuals who qualify, the court must place the person on probation without entering a conviction.  Probationary terms often include drug treatment, abstention and testing, and a requirement to be law abiding.  Upon successful completion of probation, the court must discharge the person from probation and dismiss the charges against them.  Basically, the sentence is a stay of adjudication. For those who are able to take advantage of this, it means no criminal record and a second chance! 

The most remarkable thing about this provision is that it is mandatory.  If a person qualifies and completes probation, they are entitled to dismissal of their charges.  Minnesota law has a lot of mandatory provisions, but most of them are mandatory minimum sentences – a judge must sentence a person to at least the mandatory minimum.  152.18 is unique in that it works the opposite way and forces a judge to be lenient upon people who meet its requirements. 

If you’ve been charged with a drug offense, all hope is not lost.  A skilled criminal defense attorney can help identify whether your case is eligible for this special treatment that can give you a chance to escape the burden of a criminal record.  Contact me any time for a free consultation to discuss whether you might qualify!

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