WORDS BY TIFFANY LUKK
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John Bartee III’s life changed after the murder of Philando Castile: That was the moment that he decided to turn his activism around cannabis from a hobby into a vocation.
“[Castile’s murder] was a catalyst,” Bartee, 25, says. When he learned about Castile’s life—the importance he had in the community, and at the school where he worked as a cafeteria worker—he thought, “Those are the people we need to elevate.” It’s also when he told himself, “OK, you are fully capable of doing something in this situation.”
When Bartee was in middle school, he strongly believed that “weed makes you dumb,” but things changed in high school, hanging out with some other students playing an intense game of basketball. They smoked during intermission, and Bartee changed his mind: Weed wasn’t as serious an issue as he felt he had been led to believe.
Though he says his family didn’t approve of the behavior, he continued smoking and never ran into trouble with the law. But when Castile was shot by the police in Falcon Heights in the summer of 2016—the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, claimed he felt his life was in danger due to the smell of “burnt marijuana”—it hit too close to home. (Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm, but ultimately wasn’t convicted.)
Bartee attended various political rallies and events related to marijuana and its legal
ization, looking to connect with someone who was working to change the law around cannabis. His involved a lot of listening, a lot of reading, and working on Augsburg’s Day Student Government. But in 2018, he met Marcus Harcus, director of the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization and a co-founder of the Minne-sota Cannabis College. Harcus became a mentor to him, and eventually a good friend. Harcus previously worked as executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), but according to Bartee, moved to Minne-sota Campaign for Full Legalization thanks to their timeline toward achieving legaliza-tion within four to five years. Bartee watched Harcus go to work. “He was actually trying to change the law. If he were meeting with legislators, he was giving them policy points and trying to do research all independently,” Bartee says. Bartee was ready to jump in, too. “I was like, ‘I’ll help this guy out.’” But for the last six months, Bartee’s been working 30 to 50 hours a week as govern-ment affairs manager/lobbyist at Uniflora Holistics, a Minneapolis-based cannabis manufacturer that owns the brand Love is an Ingredient Cannabis, while going to school. He also serves on the board of the Minne-sota Cannabis College, which provides education to businesses and those inter-ested in joining the industry on cannabis to smooth the transition to legalization in Minnesota. They’re currently putting the finishing touches on their full retail oper-ation and curriculum, with classes that include topics ranging from how to sell cannabis with Minnesota’s current laws to how cannabis affects the body—and more. “We’re trying for people to actually know what they’re talking about right now so when everything’s fully legal, we can have that foundation,” Bartee says. “We’ll keep building our classes and keep having a very professional industry here in Minnesota. That’s our focus—educating businesses first, so the consumer can learn from them.” Bartee wants people to know that cannabis isn’t the problem it’s made out to be. Since that high school basketball game, he’s believed, and continues to believe, that the prohibition around cannabis has caused most of the issues surrounding it. According to the CDC, there were more than 140,000 deaths per year between 2015 and 2019 from alcohol consumption. The death rate was zero for marijuana during that same timeframe. “[Marijuana’s] not as intoxicating as alcohol … it’s this completely safe plant that we have caused issues with,” Bartee says. “We’ve perpetuated a drug war, ruined a lot of people’s lives, and lost money and humanity as a society over [it],” he says. In the nearly 300-page legalization bill (most bills number fewer than 10, Bartee says), there are clauses that will cause posi-tive change within the state, such as expung-ing the records of people who’ve been convicted on marijuana charges and prior-itizing those who have marijuana charges and their family members for business licenses within the industry. There are a few atypical things in there, too. “I feel like Minnesota is such a unique state with the strangest sort of interests that have power, that we [the creators of the legalization bill] had to craft something completely unique,” he says. He says some of those unique points include a low tax rate of 8 percent—some states have a rate as low as 6 percent, but others go as high as 37 percent. It also has coexisting rules, such as not possessing more than a pound and a half of cannabis in your home, but the ability to own four maturing plants, which could exceed that weight limit. Many people have had doubts about being able to change the law, but Bartee thought differently. Through his activism, Bartee saw firsthand the impact of speaking directly with legislators and the importance of consistency. What keeps him showing up is the chance to positively affect the lives of others. “I’m also close enough to see where we can get our wins, where we can make change happen.”