Listen: Mainstreet Radio series: Meth in Minnesota Pt. 6 of 7

As part of the Mainstreet Radio series “Meth in Minnesota,” MPR’s Mark Steil reports on The debate over state drug policies, which came into sharp focus this year in a case involving methamphetamine, jail time and a young Minnesota mother.

The effects of methamphetamine use are working their way through our criminal justice system. The rapid rise in meth arrests is one of the main factors in sharply higher prison populations. The cost of housing drug offenders has renewed an old debate -- what works best, prison or treatment?

This is part six of a seven-part series.

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 7:


2004 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Series - Large Market Radio category


text | pdf |

MARK STEIL: The numbers tell a troublesome story. About 40% of the state's felony drug convictions involve methamphetamine. That's more than 1,300 cases. About 90% of those offenders spent time behind bars in local jails or state prisons.

Minnesota corrections officials can feel the explosion. Inmates convicted of a drug charge, including meth, make up about 1/4 of the 7,600 adults in prison. That number has doubled in just six years.

22-year-old Amber Bluhm is one of those headed to jail. Bluhm faces a six-month sentence. She pleaded guilty to methamphetamine possession. It's her second meth conviction. She also pleaded guilty to possession in 1999. In the days before she sent away, she regrets her drug use.

AMBER BLUHM: I'd love to go back to high school. I'd do it all over. I'd go to prom. I'd be in more sports. I missed everything. I missed my graduation ceremony. I missed living.

MARK STEIL: A churchgoing, small town girl, Bluhm once considered herself goody goody. Says her path to jail began with cigarettes, marijuana followed, then methamphetamine. Her life is filled with tragedy.

She says, two of her friends killed themselves because of meth. Bluhm hasn't used the drug for two years, but she still feels the effects. She hears and sees things that aren't there. She warns teenagers, stay away from meth.

AMBER BLUHM: If they don't want to hear voices and stuff, then they shouldn't use. They don't want to hear the insanity and the craziness. And I don't know what's evil. I pray every day that it'll go away.

MARK STEIL: That's not all she's dealing with. The mother of a two-year-old son, Bluhm is scared of going to jail. She pleaded guilty two years ago to her second meth charge, but is free on appeal. In her appeal, she says, the sentence is too harsh. That jail will do more harm than good at punishing her son as well. Bluhm says, she's beat her addiction. She went through drug treatment, finished high school, and held a job.

AMBER BLUHM: I'm sober now and I don't see-- I don't see why I need to get punished for being an addict when I got help. Now, I'm just when I go to jail. Everything's just going to fall apart on me again. And then I got to pick it up again when I get back out of jail.

MARK STEIL: That's a real-life summary of the anti-prison, pro-treatment argument. It's gaining support from some influential members of Minnesota government. Amber Bluhm's appeal went to the state supreme court. The court upheld her six-month sentence, but not without reservation.

The court said, Minnesota law requires jail time for a second drug conviction. But the justices also noted their disfavor with mandatory sentences. Many feel it takes away their discretion.

In a separate opinion, Associate Justice James Gilbert said, Bluhm has turned her life around. Noting her sobriety, Gilbert wrote, Bluhm has done everything the criminal justice system could hope for. He agreed, however, that because of the way state drug laws are written, Amber Bluhm must go to jail.

Justice Gilbert would not comment directly on the Bluhm case. But he did talk about how Minnesota's criminal justice system is being tested by the increase in drug arrests.

JAMES GILBERT: Well, there's no question that the problem is there. And it's not going to go away if we just pretend it's not there. It switches from the drug of choice. Now, methamphetamine in greater Minnesota is the drug of choice. And in my opinion, that's almost like an epidemic.

MARK STEIL: Justice Gilbert says, the state should look for alternatives to prison time. He promotes the use of drug courts. Currently, there are seven such courts operating in Minnesota. In a drug court, offenders are sent to treatment. Gilbert says, there's a powerful incentive for offenders to complete the program.

JAMES GILBERT: They realize if they step out of bounds and don't follow the mercy, if you will, that has been granted them by the court, they're going to be going into jail real quick.

MARK STEIL: The sheer cost of prison is incentive for some to rethink state drug laws. Republican State Representative Eric Lipman of Lake Elmo says, too many people are being imprisoned. He says, it will cost Minnesota taxpayers another $300 million in prison expenses over the next 10 years unless drug laws are changed.

Lipman says, Minnesota sentences are among the harshest in the nation. A person can spend more than seven years in jail for just 25 grams of meth. That's the weight of 25 paperclips. In most other states, the sentence would be a year behind bars.

ERIC LIPMAN: So we are many, many times higher than everyplace else in the US in ways that I think are very expensive to the taxpayer and corrosive to the community in comparison with what deterrent effect we are getting and what rehabilitative effect we're getting.

MARK STEIL: Lipman says, without adequate treatment, many offenders start using drugs as soon as they're released from prison. He's tried without luck to get the legislature to change Minnesota law and send more people to treatment. A report by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission says, treatment would save money. The study says, prison costs the state nearly $30,000 a year per inmate. Treatment is just over $4,000.

But those against relaxing drug laws say something more important than money is at risk. DFL state Representative. John Lesch of Saint Paul says, easing penalties will lead to more drug use.

JOHN LESCH: It strikes me as the Walmart bill for drug dealers. Low, low prices for buying in bulk.

MARK STEIL: Lesch works as a prosecutor for the city of Saint Paul. He says, judges have enough leeway now to deal with drug offenders. He says, judges often give lighter sentences for drug crimes than state law recommends. The sentencing. Guidelines Commission report offers support for that claim. About half the people convicted of manufacturing meth receive a lighter sentence than called for in state guidelines.

In fact, the report says judicial departure from state recommended sentences has been consistently high for drug offenses, but not in all cases. Amber Bluhm awaits jail time, even though one supreme court justice said, that sentence amounted to unmitigated harshness. Bluhm says, it sends a signal.

AMBER BLUHM: I'm one of the few that did straighten up, and I did get my life together and went to treatment. And I've been trying to go to school and everything else. And I feel like they're just telling me that it's not good enough. Like, who cares if you get sober? You're still a piece of crap.

MARK STEIL: That sense of worthlessness is the kind of attitude that can contribute to more drug use. Bluhm says, that won't happen to her. She says, her son is all the incentive she needs to stay away from methamphetamine.

But many others fall victim to the drug time after time. That means more crime and offers state lawmakers a challenge-- spend more money for prisons, or take the politically risky step of relaxing drug laws. Mark Steil Minnesota Public Radio.


Materials created/edited/published by Archive team as an assigned project during remote work period and in office during fiscal 2021-2022 period.

This Story Appears in the Following Collections

Views and opinions expressed in the content do not represent the opinions of APMG. APMG is not responsible for objectionable content and language represented on the site. Please use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report a piece of content. Thank you.

Transcriptions provided are machine generated, and while APMG makes the best effort for accuracy, mistakes will happen. Please excuse these errors and use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report an error. Thank you.

< path d="M23.5-64c0 0.1 0 0.1 0 0.2 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.3-0.1 0.4 -0.2 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.3 0 0 0 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.1 0 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.2 0 0.4-0.1 0.5-0.1 0.2 0 0.4 0 0.6-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.1-0.3 0.3-0.5 0.1-0.1 0.3 0 0.4-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.3-0.3 0.4-0.5 0-0.1 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1-0.3 0-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.2 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.3 0-0.2 0-0.4-0.1-0.5 -0.4-0.7-1.2-0.9-2-0.8 -0.2 0-0.3 0.1-0.4 0.2 -0.2 0.1-0.1 0.2-0.3 0.2 -0.1 0-0.2 0.1-0.2 0.2C23.5-64 23.5-64.1 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64"/>