They are something of an odd couple in Minnesota politics right now.
Marcus Harcus, the executive director of the MN Campaign for Full Legalization, is a north Minneapolis activist and former City Council candidate who got involved in the push to legalize marijuana for recreational use because of social justice concerns — that people of color are more likely to be prosecuted than white people. He also acknowledges that he uses and enjoys marijuana and has for more than two decades.
Kim Bemis is the chair of the Minnesota chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization and commercialization of marijuana. In long-term recovery from cannabis-use disorder, Bemis is a former counselor at the Hazelden Betty Ford treatment center and now runs an online drug and alcohol intervention program for teens and their families.
Harcus and Bemis take vastly different positions on the bills circulating through the state House and Senate that would legalize marijuana growing, production, possession and use in Minnesota. But there they were last week, side by side at a press conference announcing a road show of sorts. While lawmakers continue to discuss legislation at the Capitol — though the chances of the Legislature passing anything in 2019 are iffy at best — Harcus and Bemis will co-host a series of forums over the next four months around the state.
The idea, Harcus said, is to bring both sides into the same room to debate differences — and try to find common ground. He said he had never seen a forum with both legalization proponents and opponents sharing the stage. “If we can stand on common ground rather than fighting each other without listening, all the better,” Harcus said. “We do feel we have some shared interests in public safety and public health.”
Bemis said he hopes people who aren’t decided might have a chance to hear from both sides and ask questions.
Such a meeting, and the press conference itself, was in stark contrast to an event early in the session, when a press conference convened by opponents of legalization was crashed by supporters.
Harcus, who said he didn’t plan or condone that interruption, said he reached out to Bemis after the incident and shared a closed-door meeting with Attorney General Keith Ellison, who supported legalization during his campaign, on the issue. “We want to engage in civil discussions that are respectful,” said Harcus. “This is a real debate. These are serious issues and we want to confront each other in a respectful manner.”
Harcus even joked that he hoped he could win opponents over and get them to support legalization.
“Or the other way around,” Bemis said in response.
But there are limits to the comity. “We get along pretty well,” Harcus said, but “I don’t think we’ll smoke a joint together.”
Both sides see common ground
Part of what could take place at the forums, which will be held in in Brainerd, Minneapolis, Litchfield and Rochester, is a discussion of the research — or lack of research — into the effects of marijuana use on impairment, dependence and health.
Bemis said there is a political wave in the nation that seems to conclude that marijuana isn’t harmful for adults. But he said there is research to the contrary that hasn’t been widely discussed. “We’d just like a chance to be heard on that,” Bemis said.
Harcus, on the other hand, said he thinks much of the opposition is based on ignorance and fear. “The fear is largely based on ignorance of the unknown,” Harcus said. “We want these forums to educate the public, the voters and also to educate the legislators.”
While most discussions with opponents and supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana tend to resemble an argument more than a conversation, both sides said they do see some common ground.
Bemis said there is no opposition from SAM for the medical cannabis program. “We’d like to find a way to work together on that particular topic.” He said he also doesn’t believe marijuana should be a category one drug carrying the heaviest legal sanctions for possession and use.
“Also, if this is stopping people from employment, if this is going to end up on their record, we’re certainly open to negotiating how that could work so it could be taken off the table,” Bemis said. The main issue for SAM is the commercialization of marijuana.
From his side of the debate, Harcus said there is agreement about preventing youth access, impaired driving and “believe it or not, most people who are cannabis consumers don’t want to see Big Marijuana. We’d rather it be like a craft-brew industry than a Coors and a Michelob and Bud Lite type of industry.”
Lots o’ legislation
Just this week, the House will hear a number of bills on marijuana. One would decriminalize possession (House File 793); another would study the impacts of the drug on driving, including the levels of THC in a driver’s system that could signal impairment (HF 469); while still another would create a task force to look at the issue (HF 717) .
There are also full legalization bills in the House, one of which, HF 265, would take the issue to voters via a constitutional amendment. Another, HF 420, would expunge criminal records of those already convicted of possession of small amounts of marijuana. House DFL committee chairs have even declared Tuesday “Responsible on Cannabis Day.”
At a Tuesday press conference, House Public Safety Committee Chair Carlos Mariani, DFL St. Paul, said the House won’t hear any of the legalization bills this year.
“What is happening is a lot of members are saying, ‘you know Carlos, I might be ok with full legalization but I have a lot of questions,’ ” Mariani said. “We’ve got a process that’s going to answer what those questions are. I think that’s a responsible approach.”
There are also bills in the Senate to legalize, tax and regulate pot (SF 619); to decriminalize (SF 192 ); and to create a task force (SF 897). The bills have bipartisan sponsorship and the full legalization bill is set for a Monday hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the Senate’s GOP leadership has said repeatedly they do not expect legalization or decriminalization bills to pass this year.