Demonstrators descended on the state capitol rotunda Wednesday thrusting fists and signs into the air with chants of "yes, we cannabis!"
For two hours, the hallways echoed with the voices of cops, writers, pols, and lawyers invited by Minnesota NORML, which lobbies for marijuana reform. They rubbed elbows with both jean jackets and blazers, showing the disparate makeup of a group that is often typecast and dismissed as burnouts.
"This movement is about people who like drugs, people who hate drugs, and people who just don't give a damn about drugs," says Neill Franklin, a former narcotics officer, from the podium. "It's about everyone who is concerned about cannabis prohibition in the United States today."
In the crowd, Grassroots Party founder Oliver Steinberg smiles when asked about how pot reform has gone mainstream. He attended his first demonstration back in the early 90s with some of the same people who showed up here.
"The only difference now are those cameras," he says, pointing to the TV crews.
Yes, there's more exposure, but rallies like this one run the risk of further conflating the issues of medical and recreational marijuana, thereby playing into the hands of opponents. Just the other day, when he testified against the medical bill, Minnesota public health commissioner Ed Ehlinger quoted Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper as saying,
I don't tell other governors what to do, but when they asked me, I said, 'If I was in your shoes, I would wait a couple of years and see whether there are unintended consequences, from what is admittedly a well-intentioned law.The problem: Hickenlooper went on record years ago supporting medical marijuana. His words of caution came from a New York Times article about how Democratic governors were hesitant to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Ehlinger failed to mention both of these points.
We asked his office about it and got a reply via email: "The Governor's [Hickenlooper's] observation about the merits of learning lessons good and bad from other states can easily apply to policies that address medical marijuana just as much as policies addressing recreational marijuana."
Meanwhile, the medical marijuana camp has been careful in the last few months to distance itself from Minnesota NORML. Public support also has a clear demarcation. Whereas an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans support pot as medicine, far fewer endorse pot as leisure.
Randy Quast, executive director of Minnesota NORML, is conscious of the medical-recreational divide, but quick to point out that his organization is an umbrella. Wednesday's rally was as much about the casual toker as it was about the child suffering from epilepsy.
"The first people who ought to have marijuana are those with a medical need," he says inside the state capitol. "But the best way to make that happen is to make it legal for everybody."
Quast has at least one backer in the legislature. Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) was met with applause when she spoke of abolishing the state's marijuana laws. To make her case, she pulled stats from a recent Minnesota 2020 study about the arrest disparity facing local black men.
"Let's create a system where we can tax and regulate the sale," she says, "so we can invest more wisely in all of us."
It's a nice thought, but it ain't happening this session. The best that supporters can hope for is the passage of the medical bill (which bears Moran's name).
Max Bauer, a 24-year-old from north Minneapolis, put down his "HELL NO SMOKE SOME DRO!" sign long enough to explain that the push for even incremental change is bigger than his own personal habits.
"By no means does it have to go recreational for it to be a victory," he says.