BISMARCK — As North Dakota lawmakers mull a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana use in the state, a separate proposal to eliminate criminal penalties for carrying small amounts of the drug has gotten the green light from a House committee.

House Bill 1201 would make it a noncriminal offense, punishable by a fine of up to $50, to possess as much as one ounce, or 28.35 grams, of marijuana. The legislation, brought by Fargo Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, would also reduce the criminal penalties for carrying larger amounts of pot.

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 16, voted 8-4 to give House Bill 1201 a "do-pass" recommendation as it heads to the lower chamber's floor.

Roers Jones, an ardent supporter of criminal justice reform, proposed a similar bill two years ago, but lawmakers ended up passing a diluted version of the legislation that took the penalty for possessing up to a half ounce of marijuana down from a Class B misdemeanor to an infraction, the lowest criminal offense.

Proponents of decriminalization say low-level marijuana convictions generate unnecessary barriers to jobs and housing for offenders.

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"We don't want to create criminal records that are going to affect people into the future for possessing small quantities of marijuana," Roers Jones said. "It affects their ability to be successful."

A jar of marijuana buds. Shutterstock photo
A jar of marijuana buds. Shutterstock photo

Bismarck Republican and committee chairman Rep. Lawrence Klemin opposed the bill, saying the recent interest in decriminalizing all sorts of activities could lead to residents "doing anything you want to anybody you want to." House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, previously told Forum News Service he stands against decriminalization efforts.

The proposal is sponsored by a handful of lawmakers who have also thrown their weight behind an effort to fully legalize recreational marijuana use and develop an industry for growing and selling the drug. A subcommittee of lawmakers has formed to iron out details on that bill, and no official votes have taken place.

Roers Jones counts herself among several Republicans who back the charge to legalize pot despite having personal reservations about the idea. Bismarck GOP Rep. Jason Dockter told Forum News Service last month he wants the Legislature to control the legalization process to preempt a ballot initiative that might cement the practice in the state Constitution with policies that rub lawmakers the wrong way.

If the legalization bill passes the House and Senate, Roers Jones said she would ask lawmakers to kill her then-moot decriminalization bill.