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Fearing a new ballot effort, North Dakota senators pass marijuana decriminalization bill

David Owen of Grand Forks is the chairman of Legalize ND, the group behind Measure 3. Owen says they intend to push for legalization on the ballot again in 2020. David Samson / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Fearing an expected ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana, North Dakota senators approved a decriminalization bill Thursday, April 4.

The bill would reduce penalties for possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana to a noncriminal fine of $250. That's currently a Class B misdemeanor, which would stay in place for possessing a half-ounce or more.

The proposal came to the Senate via a floor amendment offered by Fargo Republican Sen. Kristin Roers. It passed in a 37-10 vote before the Senate approved the bill itself.

House and Senate lawmakers are expected to hash out differences in a joint conference committee before considering a final product. The House defeated a marijuana decriminalization bill in February.

The Senate's vote came hours before the group behind a failed 2018 ballot measure planned to hold a public discussion on a "framework" for a 2020 legalization effort in Fargo. Roers suggested that the decriminalization bill could head off another ballot push while helping people avoid a criminal record for their "youthful indiscretion."

"If we do not start making some incremental changes, we are going to have the changes made for us," she said.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum has expressed support for decriminalization at the state level. He generally doesn't comment on specific legislation until it reaches his desk.

But some senators argued that the proposal leaned too far toward legalization and would make the drug more available.

"I don't care how you say it, anything under an infraction is legalizing," said Sen. Michael Dwyer, R-Bismarck. "It's essentially doing what the people just voted against."

As amended by the Senate, House Bill 1050 also reduces penalties for marijuana paraphernalia possession from a Class B misdemeanor to a noncriminal $100 fine. Similarly, it imposes a noncriminal $250 fine for using marijuana, down from a Class B misdemeanor.

Class B misdemeanor charges carry a maximum of 30 days in prison and a $1,500 fine. But the head of the North Dakota State's Attorneys' Association previously said courts are already "slapping people on the hands" for possessing a small amount of marijuana.

The bill requires an interim legislative study on the "implications of the potential adoption of an initiated measure allowing the use of recreational marijuana." The study would scrutinize legalization's benefits and detriments to the state's economy, tax revenue, public health and youth drug use rates.

The study would also examine how legalization could affect the state's existing medical marijuana program, which voters approved in 2016.

Legalize ND Chairman David Owen, who has championed legalization efforts in the state, said the decriminalization bill doesn't go far enough.

"It's not going to stop me," he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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