After cheerfully greeting a visitor to his one-man computer repair shop in Bloomington, Chris Wright returned to a back office festooned with rock posters and pro-marijuana literature, where he was keen to share a passage of the Minnesota Constitution already queued on his monitor.
That provision — “a person may sell or peddle the products of the farm or garden, occupied and cultivated by him without obtaining a license” — was the basis for Wright’s unsuccessful appeal of a 1996 conviction for selling marijuana.
“Of course, I didn’t win. The court said it’s a privilege, not a right,” said Wright, now 57 and the endorsed gubernatorial candidate of the Grassroots Party, the pro-marijuana legalization party he helped to found in 1986.
“I ultimately ended up getting five years of probation, a thousand dollar fine and a hundred hours of community service,” he said.
At the time of the appeal, Wright was in the midst of his first gubernatorial campaign, a race in which two of the other unsuccessful hopefuls — Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and former Attorney General Skip Humphrey — were also official participants in his court case. It’s a coincidence that Wright notes with more glee than indignation.
Recounting his experiences as an often lonely advocate for legalization, Wright ticked off his version of past run-ins with police, expounded at length on the history of anti-drug laws such as the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 and the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, and highlighted his role in organizing the state’s original chapter of the National Organization of Marijuana Laws (NORML), as well as numerous rallies at the Capitol.
He is particularly proud of his role in unearthing a World War II era government propaganda film, “Hemp for Victory,” which urged farmers to grow hemp to make ropes for the Navy. After procuring a copy of the film from the National Archives, Wright made duplicates, which were then widely distributed among legalization advocates.
“I went to Australia, doing research on narcotics laws, and I walked past a store in a suburb of Perth and, sure enough, there was a copy of ‘Hemp for Victory,’” he recalled. “It was amazing. Something you do can have effect half way around the world.”
But, for the most part, Wright laid out arguments in favor of ending marijuana prohibition — a policy he says would curb civil rights abuses and grow the economy.
Such positions once made Wright an outlier. With public attitudes shifting both in Minnesota and nationally, it has emerged as the single unifying theme among third-party candidates running for office in 2014.
Both the Independence Party and the Libertarian Party of Minnesota have embraced full legalization as central planks.
In the gubernatorial contest, three of the five candidates appearing on the ballot —Hannah Nicollet of the IP, Chris Holbrook of the LPM and Wright — have been uniformly critical of the restrictive medical marijuana law signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton this year.
In an indication of how much the ground has shifted, even Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the otherwise conservative GOP nominee, has said that Minnesota’s medical marijuana law doesn’t go far enough in providing access to potential patients.
“We’re gonna take credit for that. We were the ones who started calling for legalization when no one else was for it,” Wright said of the surge of pro-pot candidates on the ballot.
Far from resenting the incursion into once exclusive turf, Wright strikes a more-the-merrier attitude.
“I’m happy and encouraged by it. Minor parties have always been the testing grounds on the issues that were too touchy for the major parties to take up,” he said.
Women’s suffrage, he noted, was a central issue for the People’s Party and the Bull Moose Party before it was embraced by what he refers to as “the two party tyranny.”
Still, in a nod to the competition for the pro-pot vote and the possibility that some voters won’t properly associate “Grassroots” with the party’s agenda, Wright has included an explicit descriptor on the official ballot line — the “Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party.”
Unlike many long-shot candidates, Wright does not use such common rhetorical devices such as “when I’m elected governor” and he frankly acknowledges the obstacles presented by the lack of an organized political apparatus, media attention and money
“I wouldn’t even be running this time if it weren’t for the fact that I have a website and was willing,” he said. “I’m not even sure I would want the job. I could use the $120,000 salary.”
Oliver Steinberg, Wright’s campaign manager and a fellow founder of the Grassroots Party, said party has always struggled to get supporters to play an active role.
“We have a shoestring budget and a small nucleus of activists,” Steinberg said. “There are a tremendous number of people who are willing to sign petitions to get us on the ballot. The difficulty is to get those people to do anything else.”
Excluded from the debates with the three major party candidates, Wright said he has participated in a single forum so far — a cable TV debate Tuesday with the Libertarian candidate Chris Holbrook.
While the two candidates differed on most policy matters — including Wright’s advocacy of single-payer health insurance and free post-secondary education — Wright said they were united by their views on legalization, as well as the struggles of mounting a third-party campaign.
This summer Holbrook was handcuffed and detained by Minneapolis park police while gathering signatures to get on the ballot at Lake Calhoun, an incident to which Wright readily related.
“Welcome to the club. In 1986, I was at Powderhorn Park, handing out flyers saying legalize pot and vote for Derrick Grimmer, who was running for attorney general. The police said, ‘Do you have a permit for those?’ And I said, ‘Yeah the First Amendment,’” Wright recalled with a laugh. “They threw me in the back of the squad car.”
According to his last campaign filing, Wright raised less than $600 this year, all of which was donated by Steinberg, his campaign manager.
But Wright said he still hopes he and his fellow pro-legalization candidates will collectively garner enough support to make major party candidates reconsider their positions.
“I don’t have to win this election,” he said. “If we can steal enough votes, they’ll want those votes and, maybe, one of them may come out for legalization. Then we’ll know that we really did win.”
And what if those votes were to effectively tip the election?
“People always call third party candidates spoilers. We’re not spoilers, we’re refreshers,” he said. “I could care less who wins the election. On the issue of cannabis, you can’t change the status quo by voting for the status quo.”