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Bemidji resident Jake Chernugal (left) listens to Randy Quast and Nathan Ness of the Minnesota chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) advocating for reforming Minnesota marijuana laws on Wednesday afternoon outside the Bemidji Judicial Center. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Pot potential? MN 2020, NORML advocates in Bemidji for marijuana reform as Legislature works on medical cannabis bill

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BEMIDJI -- As state legislators debate how far to go with legalizing medical cannabis in Minnesota, statewide advocacy groups stopped in Bemidji on a tour calling for reform to the state's stance on sticky-icky.

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Progressive advocacy group Minnesota 2020 and the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) held a tandem press conference Wednesday outside the Beltrami County Judicial Center to highlight what they said were unfair side effects of Minnesota's enforcement of laws against recreational marijuana.

Minnesota 2020 fellow Nicole Simms said there's a myriad of consequences that occur when someone is convicted for pot possession in addition to the criminal charges, including seizure of assets, loss of income and loss of access to government assistance. There's also a statewide disparity between the number of white Minnesotans and non-whites arrested for marijuana crimes, she said. In Beltrami County, American Indians are about 1.5 times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites, she said.

"We're... hoping to get Minnesotans to support legislative reforms that will help to minimize the collateral cost of those incidents and arrests, " Simms said. "Supporting those kinds of legislative reforms, calling for more accountability in policing and better training to reduce police bias, and really considering whether marijuana prohibition is sort of worth the cost that it's inflicting on individuals and communities, those are some of the things we think should be part of the conversation going forward."

Jake Chernugal, NORML supporter and a local home health care employee, said many of his agency's clients use marijuana as a painkiller rather than legal prescription drugs because they feel it's less addictive... even if they risk losing their public housing by getting busted.

"We see a lot of our clients actually taking the narcotics that they're being prescribed by their physicians and actually trading them for marijuana... they feel so much safer in using marijuana compared to these other extremely, highly addictive narcotics," he said. "A lot of them do rely on public assistance, public housing, so when they're using (marijuana) to try to curb the chronic pain... they put themselves and their family at risk because if they're caught... they'll lose their houses."

Legislature wrapping medical bill

Negotiators from the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Senate are working to reconcile two different versions of a bill legalizing medical cannabis. The House version, considered more restrictive, has lower limits on the amount of marijuana dispensary locations in the state and the types of medical marijuana allowed than the Senate version.

Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, voted in favor of legalizing medical cannabis.

"I think it's a good step in the right direction," Erickson said Wednesday. "The House did not take a very bold step, but it is getting something started and I think that has value in and of itself."

Erickson's Republican opponent in this year's election, Dave Hancock, said the decision to legalize medical cannabis should be left up to the federal Food and Drug Administration, not the state legislature.

However, both Erickson and Hancock were opposed to legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

"I think it poses additional potential for abuse and creates, I think, a real problem in terms of potential impaired driving, for example," Hancock said. "What are the long term effects of any drug use? Certainly habitual alcoholism has posed a big problem. Habitual nicotine use has posed medicinal problems, as well. Would marijuana pose some of those same concerns? Possibly."

Erickson said the ramifications of Colorado's legalization of recreational marijuana use, which took effect Jan. 1, should be allowed to play out before Minnesota considers the move.

"I'd want to see how that goes, four or five years down the road -- if that's going to turn out to be good for the state or disastrous for the state," Erickson said. "I'm not ready to take that leap at all... until somebody convinces me it's good for the state of Minnesota."

Doctors, law enforcement weigh in

Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp said that although he did not support legalizing medical marijuana, he empathized with those ill people who may benefit from the drug.

"There's no law enforcement officers anywhere who want any sick person to go without the kind of medication they need to make them feel better," he said.

However, like Hancock, Hodapp felt the process to make medical marijuana a legitimate drug should be the purview of federal drug experts, not part-time state legislators.

"I think what's gone on is, some of these state legislators have been frustrated by the process at the federal level... that's why the states have decided to just go ahead and pass it," he said. "That's probably the case here in Minnesota, too."

Dr. Willliam Dicks, a chronic pain expert at Sanford Health Bemidji, was in favor of legalizing medical marijuana in Minnesota. Dicks said he was speaking on his own behalf and not that of Sanford Health.

Dicks said some synthetic variants of medical marijuana are technically legal already in Minnesota, but they're impractically expensive in part because insurance companies are reluctant to cover them.

"Minnesota already has medical marijuana," he said. "It's just that it's so restricted that it's out of the hands of most of the people that really need it."

However, Dicks was against allowing people to smoke marijuana in full leaf form for medical purposes because of the risk of people abusing it.

"I've never talked to a physician face to face that thought that was a good idea," he said. "Almost everybody feels that if that happens, we're going to have 12-year olds smoking pot."

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Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
(218) 333-9791
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