A Minnesota man just got four years in prison for marijuana. In 2016.


Last New Year’s Day, the employees at a Lunds distribution center in south Minneapolis knew something was wrong with the lettuce just shipped in from California. They could smell it.

Closer inspection revealed 260 packages filled with high-grade marijuana. They called the cops, who laid in wait for the shipment’s recipient, one Steven Yang.

Yang would plead guilty to first-degree drug possession with intent to sell 258 pounds. At his sentencing this month, his attorney, Sia Lo, told the judge his 27-year-old client had no criminal record of any kind, and was currently caring for a disabled brother and his father.

Yang said his giant failed pot deal was “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life.”

Judge Gina Brandt rubbed it in: “Mr. Yang, I hope this was the worst mistake you ever made.”

Yang received a 74-month sentence. With good behavior, he’ll be out around New Year’s Day, 2021.

A month earlier, voters in four states passed measures to legalize marijuana for recreational use, bringing the total to eight. About 68 million people live in those states, and they’re typically the kind of places — California, Washington, Colorado, Massachusetts — Minnesota regards as its cool, forward-thinking peers.

Yet on this one issue, Minnesota looks more like Florida, minus the gelled hair and the sunglasses tan line.

Earlier this year, lawmakers, cops, and prosecutors struck a deal to rework the way we imprison drug felons. The new law increased the amounts of deadly drugs like meth and cocaine needed to trigger long sentences. But it also threw a bone to the law-and-order types, lowering the weight of marijuana required to merit a long stint.

Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) says the deal was meant to lessen the penalties for users and addicts, while keeping harsh justice for those in the “economic enterprise” of drugs.

“Those drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamines, are maybe more noxious than marijuana is,” Latz says. “But marijuana is still illegal in Minnesota, and this law reflects that.”

So do state prisons: As of 2015, 466 inmates were doing time for offenses where the principal crime involved marijuana. That’s up from the 338 pot prisoners we had in 2004.

Yang’s penalty looks even worse in context. In September, the Hennepin County Attorney got a 45-month sentence against John Heath, an Edina financial advisor who’d swindled two elderly women out of more than $220,000. If Yang wanted a bunch of money, the court system would prefer he just stole from his ailing father.

Exactly one day before Yang’s lettuce arrived, Donella Day caused a hit-and-run accident that killed Aisha Feels. In October, she was sentenced to 45 months. The average pot smoker’s most severe vehicular offense is driving too slow on the way to White Castle.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman says he’s far more interested in catching “rapists, murderers,” and the creeps selling bad fentanyl, the opioid painkiller that’s killed 18 people in Hennepin County alone this year.

But marijuana is much stronger now than it was in the 1970s, says Freeman — “10 to 100 times stronger.” Yang had a lot: 260 pounds may be Hennepin’s largest seizure in Freeman’s 16 years in office.

“If the sentencing is too high, then the legislature ought to be talked to,” Freeman says. “This sentence was not extraordinary. It’s right in the ballpark.”

If Yang lived in Seattle, he would not be a ward of the state. He’d be a businessman. Maybe not a good one — “obviously, he wasn’t very skilled as a smuggler,” Freeman quipped — but that determination should be left to the free market.

There aren’t many issues where a state can save itself money by deciding to make some. This is one. Minnesota spent nearly $2 million imprisoning marijuana offenders in 2015, a number that doesn’t include probation. But that’s dwarfed by how much revenue we’re leaving on the table.

States like Washington (with its 37 percent tax on pot), Oregon (25 percent), and Colorado (30 percent combined city/local taxes in Denver), tax the hell out of marijuana. Oregon pulled in $25 million in its first six months of legalization; Washington made $250 million in two years. Colorado captured $18 million… in August.

Instead of running up expenses, those states are using pot to pave roads and build water treatment plants.

When — not if — we finally legalize weed, maybe we can take some of the money and build a statue honoring Steven Yang, an honorable man if his “worst mistake” in 27 years on Earth was ordering a shipment of marijuana. The worst mistake Minnesota’s made lately was locking him up.

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