Debate continues in St. Paul over pot smoking ban

St. Paul community members will have another opportunity to provide feedback next week on a proposal that would ban cannabis and tobacco smoking in public spaces owned by the city.

The ordinance, which is sponsored by council member Chris Tolbert, describes the potential threats that secondhand smoke poses as well as the need to protect people under 21 from marijuana exposure. In addition to cannabis smoking, the proposal also includes tobacco use because city officials discovered they don't have a cigarette smoking ban on the books.

During a public hearing Wednesday night, Tolbert and other council members debated how public places should be defined in the final language of the ordinance. Tolbert’s initial proposal included all city-owned public places, but he has since proposed amending it to include only parks and certain building entrances.

Council member Mitra Jalali proposed only banning smoking in youth activity areas owned by the city, including playgrounds, athletic fields, spectator viewing areas, and parent/supervisor resting areas.

Two dozen people, including anti-smoking advocates and marijuana legalization advocates, testified during the public hearing.

"There are stacks of research that say smoke of any kind is harmful to our health," said Alexis Bylander.

"My kids need and deserve to have a safe and healthy space in the city where they enjoy being kids. So while some people are trying to find places for adults to smoke, I'm trying to find safe spaces where our kids have fun," added Damone Presley.

Minnesota law allows local governments to adopt ordinances making it a petty misdemeanor to use cannabis in public places. However, legalization advocates say they feel these types of proposals undo the work they put in to pass the law last session, especially when it comes to racial equity.

"It would be a shame for our capital city to return to criminalization before a single recreational use cannabis dispensary has even opened in the city," said Jack Fischer.

"I myself am not a smoker. But I very much understand the ways that policies like this could end up severely being detrimental to communities of color, people who don't have access to smoke spaces," said Wintana Melekin.

Council members are also weighing the possibility of a lesser enforcement tactic instead of a petty misdemeanor, such as education or an administrative citation.

Council members can propose more changes to the ordinance, and then the city attorney’s office will draft the final language of the proposal. The community will have another opportunity for public comment on Sept. 13.