Despite near-unanimous support, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has vetoed a bill preventing prosecutors from using bong water to calculate the weight of controlled substances in drug prosecutions — and a lawmaker who helped pass the legislation accused the governor of doing so for political reasons.
The bill was the result of a 4-3 Minnesota Supreme Court decision last year that allowed Rice County prosecutors to charge Sara Ruth Peck, 47, of Faribault, with first-degree drug possession — a charge often reserved for drug dealers — after the water in a glass pipe tested positive for traces of methamphetamine.
But dissenting Justice Paul Anderson said the result "borders on the absurd," and much of the Legislature agreed. The final version of the bill passed the Senate 66-0 and the House 129-2. Even police and prosecutors dropped their opposition after the bill was narrowed to include only bongs holding less than four ounces of water.
"I think it showed the Legislature working at its best to find a compromise," said House sponsor Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who was "shocked and amazed" by the veto. "I bet this issue was unique in the country in terms of the decision to include the water."
In his veto letter, Pawlenty said the bill "waters down" criminal statutes.
"Governor Pawlenty vetoed this bill because it was unclear and could've created a loophole," spokesman Brian McClung said. "A better approach is not to exempt the water, but to count the drug content within the water."
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster essentially decided to treat the bong water as a drug rather than drug paraphernalia. The Supreme Court's majority ruled that the court must follow the plain meaning of the drug laws, which contemplate drug mixtures without regard to purity.
"Rice County's decision to charge Peck in a manner far more serious than what was intended by the Legislature represents the kind of counterproductive activity that leads unnecessarily to increasing incarceration rates and wasted taxpayer money," he wrote.
After the Supreme Court's decision and resulting outcry, Peck pleaded to a lesser charge and was sentenced to five years of probation.
Kahn pointed out that one of the two people to vote against the bill was Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, the party's presumptive nominee. She suggested the governor's veto had more to do with campaign politics than criminal policy.
"The only reason I could think of for the governor to veto it is to give cover to Emmer," Kahn said.
McClung said who votes for or against bills is not a factor in whether Pawlenty vetoes them.
By Jason Hoppin
May 19, 2010
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