Marijuana legalization debate grows heated at Minnesota Capitol

An anti-marijuana news conference went off the rails Wednesday at the state Capitol when pro-marijuana advocates took over the event by shouting down critics.

Kim Bemis, of the Minnesota chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said the news conference was designed to oppose any efforts to legalize recreational pot this legislative session. Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie and County Attorney James Backstrom joined in opposition.

St. Paul activist John Thompson was among the protesters who interrupted. Thompson said his friend, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by police who smelled marijuana in his car during a traffic stop.

“Don't sit up here and tell me that marijuana is not a tool that police officers use to attack black men,” Thompson interjected. Pointing at law enforcement officers, he asked Bemis, “Are you going to stop coming to this microphone with all these damn liars?”

The free-for-all forced an early end to the news conference, but emotions spilled over afterward as both sides engaged in a shouting match at close quarters.

Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison have endorsed legalization of recreational marijuana. Many Democrats in the Legislature also favor legalization, though House DFL leaders did not include the issue among their top 10 priorities last week. Republicans control the Senate, and are generally more skeptical of loosening the state’s marijuana laws.

Minnesota currently allows medical marijuana for a narrow set of ailments.

During his own news conference Wednesday, Walz urged lawmakers to hold hearings on recreational marijuana this year.

“I have to feel like those who are opposed to this have had every opportunity to hear our case and the argument of those who support, and we’ve heard their reasons of why (marijuana shouldn’t be legalized), with expert witnesses and testimony,” Walz said.

Some Republicans have urged a closer review of states that have fewer marijuana restrictions than Minnesota.

“The concept of a work group, a task force, to dig into this, and look at what other states have done, look at where the problems are emerging and the solutions coming out of that, that’s where I’d like to see us go,” said state Rep. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, a physician.

Bemis said his group does not oppose medical marijuana but will fight efforts on recreational marijuana.

“We feel that the science and research doesn’t support recreational and commercial use,” Bemis told reporters.

Pro-marijuana activists later held their own news conference. Minneapolis attorney and NORML activist Tom Gallagher said each year, Minnesota incarcerates about 500 people for marijuana-related crimes and that African-Americans are disproportionately affected.