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Emotion running high in Minnesota debate on legalizing marijuana

Emotions ran high as the debate kicked off at the state Capitol on whether Minnesota should legalize Marijuana.

Posted: Jan 16, 2019 11:24 AM
Updated: Jan 16, 2019 1:54 PM

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Emotions ran high as debate kicked off at the state Capitol on Wednesday on whether Minnesota should legalize recreational marijuana.

Marijuana supporters heckled opponents of legalization during a news conference that ended in a shouting match.

"The current science does not support the commercialization and normalization of recreational marijuana," said Judson "Kim" Bemis Jr., chairman of the Minnesota affiliate of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. He said use by teens and young adults "skyrockets" when marijuana is legalized.

After Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom and Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie also spoke against legalization, St. Paul community activist John Thompson related how his friend, Philando Castile , was shot and killed by a police officer who said he smelled burnt marijuana after stopping Castile's car in Falcon Heights in 2016.

The case gained nationwide attention when Castile's girlfriend livestreamed the immediate aftermath on Facebook, fueling growing protests across the country over police shootings of black men. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who is Latino, shot Castile, a black man, just seconds after Castile informed him he had a gun. A jury acquitted Yanez of manslaughter.

"Don't sit up here and tell me that marijuana is not a tool that police officers use to attack black men," Thompson shouted. "This is a tool that police officers use all the time."

Legalization proponents had their own news conference scheduled for later Wednesday.

Minnesota is one of several states across the country where legislatures are considering whether to legalize recreational marijuana. New Gov. Tim Walz supported legalization during the campaign, and some lawmakers plan to introduce bills this session that would make Minnesota follow the lead of other states where it's now legal. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a plan Tuesday to make his state the 11th. In Illinois, the discussion has shifted from "when" to "how."

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, leader of her chamber's new Democratic majority, has said the House will discuss the issue this session but that it's too early to know the outcome. In the Senate, which Republicans control by just two votes, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has warned of the potential negative consequences that need to be examined before changing the law.

Backstrom said chemical addition and illegal drug use is "by far the largest contributor to crime in our society" and that legalizing marijuana would only aggravate the problem. Fatal crashes involving marijuana use have risen sharply in states that have legalized it, he added.

The prosecutor also said it's a "myth" and a "lie" that America's prisons are filled with low-level, nonviolent marijuana users. He said less than half of 1 percent of people imprisoned in Minnesota are there for marijuana use, and 70 percent of them have prior felony convictions.

"You don't go to prison for a marijuana offense unless you're in possession of or dealing with large quantities of this controlled substance," Backstrom said.

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