Rod Adams endured years of hardships because of a marijuana conviction. Now, Minnesota could legalize the drug

Person talks to crowd with signs.
A juvenile marijuana felony from 16 years ago still haunts Rod Adams, pictured here at a Feb. 2023 state Capitol rally.
Courtesy of We Choose Us

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

By Joey Peters | Sahan Journal

In his mid-20s, Rod Adams worked a graveyard shift managing trash in the basement of the Mall of America before clocking in at 6 a.m. the next morning at a second job placing security tags on clothes at Herberger’s. 

A prior felony conviction related to marijuana made it difficult for Adams to rent his own apartment, so he lived at his mother’s house in Coon Rapids, Minn. But his lack of a car and the short gap in time between his Mall of America and Herberger’s jobs prevented him from going home to sleep.

So, he slept on the light rail train or outdoors like in Loring Park.

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“I would find a cozy place to sleep downtown or just ride the light rail back and forth and get rest and then go to work,” said Adams, now 34.

Adams’ felony, which he received at age 17 as a juvenile, prevented him from renting an apartment until he was 26. He also had trouble finding work, and often took thankless jobs like washing dishes. 

When he did successfully rent his first apartment, Adams said, he had to write a three-page essay explaining to the landlord how he had changed since his felony conviction nine years earlier. 

Adams, who has no history of violent or weapons convictions, and others with marijuana convictions could get a major break if the Legislature approves a sweeping measure to legalize recreational marijuana. The Minnesota House passed the bill Tuesday, and the Senate is scheduled to vote Friday on its version of the legislation.

The two bills, which differ in some areas, include automatic expungement of all previous petty-misdemeanor marijuana convictions. Marijuana felonies would be considered by an expungement board on a case-by-case basis. 

“Nobody should have to go through that,” Adams said of his struggles. “When you have a prior record, no one wants to give you a job, no one wants to give you housing, no one wants to believe in you. So, a lot of times you’re just left out in the cold to your own devices.”

Adams is now executive director of the New Justice Project MN, a Minneapolis group that advocates for Black Minnesotans on housing, employment, and safety, among other issues. He had become so accustomed to dealing with his marijuana conviction that he never thought about expunging it until recently. 

“We’ll see how it goes,” said Adams, who attended a recent workshop about how to petition the courts to permanently remove the conviction from his record. 

Even Adams was convicted before he was a legal adult, felony records for juveniles who are charged when they are 16 or 17 stay in the public record indefinitely. 

Black Minnesotans like Adams are five times as likely to get arrested on a marijuana charge as white people, even though both populations use marijuana at similar rates, according to state data.

The legal fallout from marijuana convictions disproportionately hurts people of color as well, said Jon Geffen, a senior staff attorney with the Legal Revolution Law Firm who helps people remove marijuana offenses from their legal records. 

Often, the consequences include trouble seeking employment and a place to live, he said. Employers and landlords can legally deny jobs and housing to people with prior convictions.

Court records are public data by Minnesota law, and can be accessed at courthouse computer terminals and state-operated websites available to the general public on home computers.

“If it’s capping your ability to find and retain good work, that’s huge,” Geffen said of the impact of marijuana convictions. “It keeps people in bad housing. If you can’t rent a nice place, it’s further perpetuating problems.”

Throughout his 25 years of legal practice, Geffen said he’s observed how affluent people get their criminal records expunged all of the time, while poor people don’t have access to attorneys to help them through the process. Each expungement request costs $305 in court fees, but the process also includes additional copying expenses. The total cost could reach up to $3,000 if an attorney is hired, which is optional. 

‘A stamp on your forehead that you can’t get rid of’

Adams’ marijuana conviction still haunts him sometimes. Last summer, he tried to rent a nice apartment in downtown Minneapolis. The landlords took six weeks to accept his application and charged him double the usual price for a security deposit.

“You’re an extra risk because of your felony, no matter if I’m mentioned in a news article, no matter if I’m meeting the mayor, and no matter if I run a million-dollar organization,” Adams said. “The thing that they care about is that felony. It’s just a stamp on your forehead that you can’t get rid of.”

The process of expunging a criminal record in Minnesota is fairly straightforward, Geffen said, but also requires legal minutiae, patience, and money. Each case takes an average of six to nine months to complete. People seeking expungement are required to provide notices to all agencies that have a copy of their marijuana conviction, which is usually at least seven state and local agencies, Geffen said.

In Minnesota, possession of 1.5 ounces of marijuana or less is considered a petty misdemeanor. Anything higher is considered a felony.

Adams was arrested when he was 17 for selling marijuana on the East Side of St. Paul, which he said led to a 20-minute foot chase by police. 

“I was a young kid,” Adams said. “To make money to take care of my daughter, to make money to buy Jordans, I sold weed.” 

He spent four days in jail. After he was charged and released, Adams said he skipped a court date because he was afraid of what lay in store for him in the criminal justice system. 

Two years later, Adams got a job packing items in a warehouse for SuperValu. One day after a long shift, Adams recalled police catching him smoking a marijuana blunt outside the warehouse. When they ran his name, they saw a warrant for his arrest for the missed court appearance, he said. Adams said he subsequently went to jail for four-and-a-half weeks. 

After that stint in jail, Adams nonchalantly attempted to return to his SuperValu job as if nothing had happened. While he was gone, his mother had called into his work to report that he was out sick. 

“It still worked for me to clock in,” Adams said, chuckling. “They realized I clocked in, someone came and found me as I was changing. They took my uniform, sent me home.” 

His SuperValu job paid well and was unionized, something Adams said could have led to a better life for him and his daughter, who was born when he was 17. He can’t help but wonder now how one marijuana conviction cost him so much over the years.

“I’m glad I’m doing the work I’m doing now,” Adams said, “but I actually don’t know where I’d be if I still had that job for 10-15 years. Maybe I would have bought a house by now.”