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Q&A: Rec marijuana campaigns show contradictions, but it certainly would be big change for ND

FARGO — As the final days count down to one of most controversial ballot measures in North Dakota history, there is still a lot of misinformation — but also some accurate information — floating around the state on the recreational marijuana measure.

Polls have shown varying degrees of support for the measure with the latest from the pro-marijuana group Legalize ND showing 51 percent in favor, with 36 percent opposed. An earlier poll by a television station showed only about one-third of likely North Dakota voters in support.

If Measure 3 passes Tuesday, it will be a major change for the state. If it fails, it’s back to the status quo although one Republican legislator said this week she will introduce a bill in the coming legislative session to decriminalize marijuana. Instead of a Class B misdemeanor, it would only be a fine of perhaps $200 for an ounce or less of marijuana.

State political leaders are all against the measure, although Gov. Doug Burgum would like to see the issue addressed on the federal level. Two major groups have also formed to oppose the measure, mostly funded by businesses and an out-of-state organization.

Campaign spokesman for North Dakotans Against the Legalization of Recreational Marijuana Norm Robinson said his gut tells him the “noes” will prevail.

“I think conservative North Dakotans have enough information now and realize the measure is too wide open and has no regulations or revenue stream,” said Robinson, who has been heading the group with former attorney general and judge Bob Wefald of Bismarck.

Younger people, however, are showing up in large numbers in support of the measure, offering their opinions through social media outlets. Additionally, Legalize ND has used a number of celebrities, and even a former Republican legislative leader from Maryland, to drum up support.

Legalize ND campaign spokesman Cole Haymond said he believes the vote will be “very tight.”

“It depends on who turns out among those who say they support us, but we are encouraged by the early voting,” he said.

Through the past few months, the campaigns have been loaded information that is many times contradictory.

When asked about that, Robinson said there’s no question that both sides can find a study that looks good to them.

Haymond agreed. However, he said he believes the “facts are on our side. Anyone can cherry pick data, but what you can’t cherry pick is the right to personal freedom.”

Despite the contradictions, however, most evidence of what can happen during legalization would come from Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012 with retail stores opening in 2014.

Here is a look at some of the major issues surrounding Measure 3, with some facts and clarification from a Colorado perspective and views from North Dakotans:

Q: Is teenage use up in Colorado after legalization was passed?

A: No. Mike Van Dyke, a top leader in the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, said “one of the most surprising things after legalization was about high school use.” He said it’s been steady for years.

A department survey of about 15,000 students showed use in 2017 was at 19.4 percent, down slightly from 19.7 percent in 2013, a year before marijuana was available in stores.

“It’s been pretty constant,” Van Dyke said about the numbers.

Q: What does the department say about the effects of marijuana on teenagers?

A: Van Dyke says the department, when working on the marijuana issue, respects the vote of Colorado residents and stays neutral when contacted by other states. However, he said they do provide information from their studies.

As for the effects on teens, Van Dyke said brain development of young people continues until about 25, so there are some concerns about use of marijuana in that younger age group. There also was a study that showed that teens who smoke marijuana are less likely to graduate from high school.

However, a study on the effects marijuana might have on the IQ of a person was inconclusive, according to the study and Van Dyke. “The jury’s still out on that one,” he said.

Q: How about drugged driving in Colorado since legalization?

A: By far, Van Dyke said, impaired driving in Colorado through the use of alcohol is the major problem. Tickets for marijuana-impaired driving accounted for 6 percent of the state’s total DUIs in 2014 and was 8 percent in 2016. Blood draws and testing are used to determine levels. The level used for a drugged driving crime is 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of whole blood.

Van Dyke said the issue is a lot more complicated than with alcohol levels. He said some chronic users could have that level of marijuana in their blood, but not be impaired. The department has determined that waiting six hours after smoking before taking the wheel could prevent impaired driving.

Q: How about the emergence of edible marijuana products, including candy?

A: Edibles were about 5 percent of the market in Colorado in 2017. As for the products getting into the hands of children, Van Dyke said regulations call for child-proof packaging at all retail stores and bans on advertising. However, before legalization he said there were about 2 to 3 cases of children per year going to the emergency room by inadvertently getting their hands on edibles and that has increased to about 42 cases per year now.

He said in looking at percentages, however, it was only about 6 children per 100,000 in the 2010 to 2013 period and that it’s now about 9 children per 100,000. As for adult use of edibles, he said when they first came out, people wouldn’t feel the effect right away and then ended up eating more, causing negative side effects.

Q: How much is the sales and tax revenue in Colorado?

A: According to Shannon Gray, marijuana communications specialist for the Colorado Department of Revenue, sales and tax revenue have been growing.

For medical marijuana, the sales tax is 2.9 percent. For retail marijuana, there is a 15 percent state sales tax and a 15 percent excise tax with local governments able to add to the tax. Sales have grown from $683 million in 2014 to $1.5 billion in 2017. Tax revenue has increased from $67 million in 2014 to $250 million last year.

This year, she said sales are up so far 2.6 percent from last year and tax revenue is up 10.3 percent. She said the tax benefit to the state is under 2 percent of revenue of Colorado’s $38 billion budget.

Gray said they are neutral when others inquire about the recreational marijuana issue, but that a measure shouldn’t be approved for the tax revenue benefit.

Q: How about other economics?

A: Gray said as of Oct. 1 there are 41,000 people who are licensed to work in the industry in the state, which includes employees at the 550 retail stores, 480 medical marijuana dispensaries and others in the growing, lab testing and other fields.

Q: What does North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum say about this year’s ballot measure?

A: He’s opposed. According to his spokesman Mike Nowatzki, Burgum has said he would like to see the federal government move toward decriminalization of marijuana so that states can have the final word on legalization and regulate marijuana as they see fit, including allowing participation from the financial industry to avoid an all-cash economy that attracts criminal activity.

He encourages voters to educate themselves on the specific wording and far-reaching implications of all ballot measures, and his personal stance against full, unfettered legalization of recreational marijuana has not changed.

Q: How about a special session if the issue passes to provide some type of guidance?

A: Burgum said it’s too early to speculate. However, state Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, who ran against Burgum in the last election, said the legislators are meeting anyway in early December for three days and he believes some of the issues surrounding regulation could be addressed then.

One important issue, he said, would be that the measure calls for the expungement of all marijuana convictions within 30 days. Nelson said there could easily be a bill passed to extend that to a longer time period.

Q: How about other state legislative concerns?

A: State Rep. Shannon Roers-Jones, R-Fargo, said this week if the measure doesn’t pass, she and lawyers have started work on a bill that would decriminalize marijuana, making it a non-criminal offense for possessing under an ounce or growing six plants. Instead, it would be like a traffic ticket.

She is opposed to Measure 3 and said that passage would “open the floodgates to allow people to sell and grow the product with no regulations.” However, Roers-Jones said she is interested in changing the law so the state doesn’t have to interfere with someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of their own home.

As for expungement of records, she said she is working with lawyers on another bill that would allow individuals to petition the courts to seal records for non-violent and non-sexual convictions after three years for any misdemeanor and five years for a felony to allow people who have made a mistake to have an easier time getting a job or housing.

Roers-Jones has no idea if the bills could pass when the official session starts in January, but said it would be her goal to get the bills approved next winter.

Q: What is the current North Dakota law on marijuana possession?

A: The penalties for possessing marijuana are a Class B misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $1,500 and up to 30 days in jail. The penalty increases all the way up to 20 years in jail for dealing.

Q: Does the current North Dakota law that outlaws smoking tobacco in many public places also include marijuana?

A: Rep. Nelson said he doesn’t know if the law would apply or if changes to the tobacco smoking law would be needed. The North Dakota Department of Health agrees, as spokesperson Nicole Peske said it’s an “unknown.” She said the language in the measure is broad and that if it does pass, it’s an issue that would have to be decided.

Q: Would the measure allow unregulated marijuana usage and is the language of the proposed law poorly written?

A: As written, Measure 3 would decriminalize possessing or growing marijuana for a person over age 21. Otherwise, there aren’t any regulations. However, changes and regulations could be made by the state if the measure passes.

As for the language in the proposed law, even some criminal defense lawyers have questioned it. Mark Friez, a criminal defense lawyer in Fargo, said the measure is poorly written, perhaps one of the worst he’s seen in his career.