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WATCH: Shouting match erupts at Minnesota Capitol over recreational marijuana

Minnesota Capitol. Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — A group fighting the legalization of recreational marijuana in Minnesota took their arguments to the State Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 16, and were met by hecklers who support the drug.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Minnesota, an anti-legalization group, invited community members and law enforcement officials to speak to the risks of marijuana at a Capitol press conference. At least a dozen pro-pot activists interrupted the speakers with their own views.

By the end, a shouting match erupted as those on both sides of the debate grew frustrated with one another.

WATCH THE DEBATE HERE

The heated debate coincides with the apparent increased momentum for legalization in Minnesota. Gov. Tim Walz has said that Minnesota should make recreational pot legal, arguing it could bring in tax revenue and reduce the number of people locked away for drug offenses.

It remains unclear whether there is enough support among Democratic leaders in the House to push it forward this year. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican from Nisswa, has said he does not want to rush a decision without more research.

Here are some arguments made by both sides Wednesday:

Underage use, impaired driving

Judson “Kim” Bemis, chairman of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Minnesota, said science does not support the commercialization of recreational marijuana.

Bemis was particularly worried about the effect it would have on adolescents and teens.

“This is of great concern,” he said. “The human brain is not fully developed until 25 to 27.”

States such as Colorado and Washington, which legalized the drug years ago, have reported drops in marijuana use among adolescents.

Sandy Melville, victim impact coordinator for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said she is concerned that legalization will lead to an increase in impaired driving accidents. Her 23-year-old son, Austin, was killed as a pedestrian in 2010 by an impaired driver who had alcohol, cocaine and marijuana in his system.

Some studies have noted an increase in overall car crashes in states where recreational marijuana has been legalized.

“We are a drunk and (drugged) country,” Melville said. “Marijuana is considered a gateway drug to greater use.”

Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie called marijuana a “powerful narcotic,” and urged lawmakers to take their time if they do choose to push for legalization.

Criminal justice reform, medicinal value

Activist John Thompson chastised Leslie and other speakers who spoke against legalization. He shared how his friend, Philando Castile, was shot and killed in 2016 by a police officer who said he smelled burnt marijuana in the vehicle.

“Don’t sit up here and tell me that marijuana is not a tool that police officers use to attack black men,” Thompson shouted.

Advocates for legal marijuana gave further remarks during a press conference later in the day. That gathering was not interrupted.

Tom Gallagher, a criminal defense attorney from Minneapolis and self-identified Republican, said some of his clients have gone to prison for marijuana possession. They struggled to find a job and provide for their families after they were released, he added.

“Every time you lock somebody up, that affects an entire family,” Gallagher said.

Marcus Harcus of the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization countered earlier claims that pot is a dangerous gateway drug.

“We like to say that cannabis is a healing plant, not a crime,” he said. Medical marijuana is legal in Minnesota.

Many people use it for medicinal purposes, Harcus said, and the rate of addiction is generally low among adults.

About 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That number rises to 17 percent for those who start using the drug in their teens.

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