North Dakota marijuana backers eye neighbors for momentum

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – Leaders of two ballot measure groups that have sought to legalize marijuana in North Dakota say legalization of the drug in Montana and South Dakota bodes well for their efforts.

Voters in the two neighboring states this month approved recreational marijuana, and South Dakota voters also OK’d medicinal pot. North Dakota already allows medical marijuana. The two groups that pushed marijuana legalization measures in North Dakota this year were unable to gather enough signatures for ballot placement due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they’re already looking ahead.

Legalize ND, which sought to legalize marijuana through a statutory measure, gathered no signatures after March due to the pandemic, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

The group planned to collect signatures under the blue or “new normal” coronavirus risk level of Gov. Doug Burgum’s “ND Smart Restart” plan for business and gathering protocols, but few counties have ever reached that level. The entire state is now orange or “high risk.”

“I can’t ask people to collect signatures in the middle of a pandemic, and from door-to-door contact across thousands of doors when we have literal viral vectors, I just can’t,” Legalize ND Chairman David Owen said.

He sees the neighboring states’ passage of marijuana legalization as validating his group’s yearslong assertion that “marijuana legalization is not a left-wing, right-wing issue. It’s a commonsense issue.”

A future North Dakota measure could be “100% successful,” but the issue remains “when can we reasonably collect signatures?” Owen said.

Petitioners have a December deadline to submit 13,542 signatures for the June 2022 ballot, but supporters are looking to the 2021 Legislature, Owen said.

He would like to see a marijuana decriminalization bill “be discussed in earnest,” and sees finding influential allies in the Republican-led Legislature as key. A full legalization bill is “not going to happen,” he said. Supporters have some language drafted for various legislation.

The group that sought to legalize marijuana through the state constitution already is looking forward to 2022. The group couldn’t meet the signature threshold for this November’s ballot due to the pandemic inhibiting its efforts.

Group chairwoman Jody Vetter, of Bismarck, said supporters are “trudging forward,” organizing a sponsoring committee and planning to collect signatures again for the same proposal.

The votes in Montana and South Dakota bode well for North Dakota and “the whole nation, really,” Vetter said.

“In South Dakota a year and a half ago, the governor was vetoing hemp bills, so I’m really happy to hear that they were able to get medical and adult use on the ballot and passed,” she said.

She plans to be involved in further decriminalization efforts but waits to see how the legislative session operates amid the pandemic.

The Legislature’s interim Judiciary Committee studied effects of legalizing marijuana. The committee produced a report that yielded no recommendations but included other states’ regulatory schemes, tax structures, revenue accounting and some testimony.

The report, made public earlier this month, “speaks for itself,” said Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and sat on the interim committee.

Montana’s and South Dakota’s votes could affect future efforts in North Dakota, he said, also noting that North Dakota passed medical marijuana in 2016, and the 2019 Legislature “significantly lowered penalties for marijuana crimes, so North Dakota has acted.”

“The question, I guess, is should it be an all-or-nothing scenario?” Koppelman said. “Should marijuana be completely legal for recreational purposes or should it be minimized as an offense, which is what we did last time, so I’m sure the discussion won’t end there.”

Owen said the report accomplishes little, and he criticized what he called its “funny accounting to push an agenda.” He commends the report’s information on other states’ standards of impairment but sees contradictions with revenue accounting as to Colorado’s financial impacts.

“It feels like two different people wrote this report, to be honest,” Owen said.

He’s pleased there were no recommendations. The study came about to parallel the expected ballot measures.

Vetter wishes the committee had sought more testimony and more recent data.

“It really didn’t say too much in the study, actually,” she said.


More In State News