In North Dakota, recreational pot didn’t happen this year; is it inevitable?

Marijuana has been getting closer to full legalization in North Dakota for years, with voters approving medical use in 2016. In 2018, they had the chance to legalize recreational use, but the effort ultimately came up short at the ballot box.

David Owen
David Owen, of Grand Forks, shown in April 2021, is in support of legalizing marijuana in North Dakota. He is chairman of an organization called Legalize ND. (Sydney Mook/Grand Forks Herald)

David Hale is the chief operating officer at Strive Life in Grand Forks, a marijuana dispensary that, for a few short years, has been right in the middle of an industry growing bigger all the time.

Hale said that, statewide, medical marijuana reaches thousands of patients, a number that’s grown from just a few hundred a few years ago. For proponents, that’s exciting — and taken alongside legalization movements around the country it’s a sign that North Dakota could soon be the next state to make recreational marijuana legal.

Talk to politicians and organizers, and it seems that day might be right around the corner. Hale remains a bit more reserved.

"I wish I had that foresight,” Hale said last week. “I really do.”

Marijuana has been getting closer to full legalization in North Dakota for years, with voters approving medical use in 2016. In 2018, they had the chance to legalize recreational use, but the effort ultimately came up short at the ballot box.


But David Owen, a Grand Forks resident, political consultant and the current chairman of Legalize ND — the effort to secure recreational marijuana at the polls — said he wasn’t disappointed.

The legalization effort’s statewide performance, at about 41% support, was higher than he’d expected. Plus, he now says, issues like a fundraising gap weighed down the effort, as did a big U.S. Senate race — with multiple visits from then-President Donald Trump that helped juice conservative turnout — and a divisive Democratic presidential primary.

Now, he says, it’s a safe bet that recreational marijuana is on its way. He compares it to the slow trickle of results that came in during the recent presidential election. The states that catapulted Joe Biden to the White House were more or less knowable not long after the election itself — election data-crunchers being able to see quickly that, in places like Pennsylvania and Arizona, there were still plenty of Democratic votes to count.

But it was a long time until some of those states were actually called for Biden. Even though the victory looked like it was on its way, the ballots still had to be tallied up.

“We know legalization is going to happen,” Owen said. “When, exactly, it happens is a subject of debate.”

But recreational marijuana certainly hasn’t arrived yet. There was a list of marijuana bills passed around the Legislature this most recent session, and few had any success. One bill would have let medical marijuana patients grow plants in their own homes; another would have expanded the program to include edibles. Yet another would have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana. All of those measures failed.

‘The writing’s on the wall’

But the most-watched bill — and the most disappointing failure for marijuana advocates — was the legalization bill. HB 1420 would have represented activists’ biggest victory in a generation, legalizing recreational use for adults 21 and older as soon as 2022.

RELATED: North Dakota Senate vaporizes bill to legalize marijuana


"I think the writing's on the wall. We've been seeing states like South Dakota, Montana, even our neighbors to the north have put it in federally,” state Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, said. We're almost going to be surrounded here."

If there’s a stereotype the phrase “marijuana backer” conjures, it is not Meyer — a young, clean-cut Republican from northeast Grand Forks. But he says he’s run the numbers on recent marijuana referendums, and the push for pot in his neck of the woods looks more popular than he is.

“What I'm concerned about is we may not be picking up, as a party, on the wishes of our constituents,” Meyer said. “More people want weed than want me, you know? They beat me in votes."

That does appear to be possible. Multiple precincts in downtown Grand Forks broke for legalized marijuana by more than 60% in 2018. That popularity reflects a deep urban-rural divide; in Northwood and Thompson precincts, for example, the rates of support dropped into the 30s.

And the state, writ large, still hasn’t broken for support just yet. State Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks, voted with the majority against key bills loosening marijuana laws. She said she thinks of a family member who struggles with alcoholism; and she also worries about the experience other states have had with legalization. What could legalization mean for the rate of intoxicated driving?

“We just did medical marijuana. … I just think we need to not jump too quickly until we've done some good, solid study on this,” Bakke said.

Public opinion on the matter is moving quickly, though. Late last year, Gallup polled support for legal weed at a new high of 68%. It comes after decades of sluggish support — just 12% 50 years ago, but finally cracking majority support in the early 2010s and trending upward since.

And there’s been a flash of interest that national leaders might move to legalize it, too, even spurring surges and crashes in stock prices in marijuana businesses as investors have tried to predict how a Democratic government will handle pot. It’s still not clear precisely what the next four years will bring, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called for legalization by next year.


In that steady, upward curve, Owen sees a country slowly realizing what the War on Drugs really meant — a growing prison population and, ultimately, a failed social experiment.

“It takes time for these policies to affect enough people for enough people to organize and say, ‘This is nonsense,’” Owen said. “And then once you hit a critical point, dominos fall.”

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