BISMARCK — The North Dakota House of Representatives has advanced a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana use for adults under what would be one of the strictest pot programs in the country.

The lower chamber voted 56-38 on Tuesday, Feb. 23, to send House Bill 1420 to the Senate for consideration. The House also approved legislation that would establish a 15% tax rate for consumers buying marijuana and a 10% levy on retailers selling the drug to dispensaries.

Under the 48-page proposal:

  • Anyone 21 and older could possess up to one ounce, or 28.35 grams, of marijuana. The drug would still be prohibited for those under 21.
  • Residents could only use marijuana in private residences and on private property. Smoking the drug in the presence of those under 21 would still be illegal.
  • Users could not grow their own marijuana plants at home.

  • The state Department of Health could register up to seven marijuana manufacturing facilities and 18 dispensaries.

  • The state Health Council would create rules to regulate the growth and sale of marijuana.
  • The legal pot program would start up on July 1, 2022.

Driving while high or having an open container of marijuana in a car would still be illegal, and the legislation permits police officers to collect oral fluid from drivers to screen for marijuana use. The bill also specifies that people could still be criminally charged for possessing or using the drug on school grounds or jail property.

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Employers would still be allowed to discipline or fire workers for using marijuana or breaking internal drug policies.

The push to legalize the drug for adult use in North Dakota comes from an unlikely source. Rep. Jason Dockter, a Bismarck Republican, sponsored the legislation despite having never used marijuana and thinking the drug should remain illegal.

However, Dockter believes voters will legalize pot in the state if the Legislature doesn't act, and lawmakers may be unhappy with the resulting policies if they don't mold the program with their own hands.

Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, presents a bill to the House Finance and Taxation Committee on Jan. 6. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)
Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, presents a bill to the House Finance and Taxation Committee on Jan. 6. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)

Voters in the state overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that legalized medicinal marijuana in 2016 despite vocal opposition from many Republican lawmakers. However, voters rejected a 2018 measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana.

Two marijuana advocacy organizations have already stated their intentions to gather signatures and put measures on the ballot in 2022 that would legalize the drug. One of the organizations aims to cement a legal cannabis amendment in the state Constitution — Dockter's greatest concern. But Legalize ND, the other group, has declared that it would drop its own effort and help kill the constitutional measure if the Legislature legalizes pot on its own.

North Dakota could soon be geographically surrounded by territories that allow recreational marijuana use. South Dakota and Montana voters approved legalization measures last year, though South Dakota's program is held up in the courts. Legislation to legalize the drug in Minnesota has recently gained momentum, and recreational use is already permitted in Canada.

By being proactive, Dockter said the North Dakota Legislature has the chance to make the program "as restrictive as possible." Several other states that have legalized marijuana allow residents to grow plants and use it in public — both practices that are banned under Dockter's proposal.

Rep. Robin Weisz, a Hursfield Republican, said he understands legalization is a controversial topic, but this is the best possible bill to do it if lawmakers are going to take control of the process.

For former Burleigh County sheriff and Bismarck Rep. Pat Heinert, it was as simple as four words.

"Pot — let's vote green," Heinert said.

The bill won over enough House Republicans to pass Tuesday, but some socially conservative lawmakers remained unconvinced. Hazen Rep. Bill Tveit said he worried legalizing the drug would lead to higher use among teenagers and generate lifelong habits with negative health effects.

The North Dakota House of Representatives approved House Bill 1420 on Tuesday, Feb. 23. Screenshot via North Dakota Legislature
The North Dakota House of Representatives approved House Bill 1420 on Tuesday, Feb. 23. Screenshot via North Dakota Legislature

If the measure becomes law, North Dakota would be just the third state to legalize recreational marijuana through the legislative process.

Fifteen other states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana in some form, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The drug is still federally illegal.

Dave Owen, chair of Legalize ND, welcomed Tuesday's development, saying the bill sets out the proper framework for legalization.

"We are proud of our legislators for understanding the inevitability and working for us with a policy that benefits North Dakotans," Owen said.

Some of the opposition to the bill during public testimony came from law enforcement agencies who say legalization could cause more consumption of edible marijuana products by children.

Donnell Preskey Hushka, executive director of the North Dakota Sheriffs and Deputies Association, said sheriffs are concerned, but they realize legalization through the legislative process would ensure a better controlled pot program. She added that sheriffs are opposed to allowing the sale of marijuana edibles, which would be permitted under the bill.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Doug Burgum did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.

The House also approved on Tuesday a bill that would decriminalize possessing small amounts of marijuana, but the sponsors of the legislation say it's intended as a backup in the event that the legalization effort fails.

hb 1420 by Jeremy Turley on Scribd