BISMARCK — The group behind a push to legalize recreational marijuana in North Dakota through a ballot measure has announced it will delay most signature-getting efforts due to concerns over coronavirus.

Grand Forks legalization advocate Dave Owen posted on Legalize ND's Facebook page Thursday, April 2, that the group would now be focusing on getting the measure on the 2022 primary election ballot, instead of the Nov. 3 general election ballot this year.

"Due to the virus, all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked," Owen said in the Facebook post. "Businesses will continue to collect (signatures), but we don't want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn't change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot."

Owen said the group had collected about 4,000 of the 13,452 qualified signatures needed to appear on the ballot, but hopes of getting enough signatures by the July 6 submission deadline were all but dashed with the recent cancellation of concerts, parades and other large events. The group has been able to gather thousands of signatures at those types of events in the past, Owen said.

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The group supported a similar ballot measure that voters rejected by a wide margin in 2018.

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger confirmed that supporters of ballot measures have one year to gather signatures from the time they were approved to circulate the petitions. In this case, the group has until mid-December of this year to collect and turn in the rest of the signatures if it wants to get the legalization measure on the 2022 primary ballot.

Meanwhile, a separate effort to legalize marijuana through the state Constitution rather than state law is still hoping to go forward. Measure committee chairwoman Jody Vetter said her group is aiming to turn in the requisite 26,904 signatures to the state in July. Vetter said she didn't currently have an exact count of the signatures gathered, but she believed it be around 15,000.

Owen said the coronavirus outbreak reveals a fault in the state's signature-getting laws, which require a circulator to be physically present while petitions are signed. Even before the pandemic, it may not have been safe to circulate petitions door-to-door during flu season, he said.

If one silver lining comes out of the outbreak, Owen said, it would be a change in the rules to allow petitions to signed online. He said signers could provide a drivers' license number and a Social Security number to prove their identity.

Jaeger said any such change would likely require an amendment to the state Constitution. The longtime officeholder also expressed doubts about upholding the integrity of the process if circulators could collect signatures online.