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At Chamber forum, Grand Forks' District 43 candidates split on marijuana issue, but against term limits

Voters in the district will decide the political fate of each of those candidates, choosing two for the House and one for the Senate, on Nov. 8. That same day, they’ll also participate in a statewide vote to determine whether North Dakota should legalize recreational marijuana and whether the state should create term limits for members of the Legislature.

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GRAND FORKS — None of the five District 43 candidates who participated in a Tuesday evening forum believes the state should enact term limits, but their beliefs on legalizing recreational marijuana vary.

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Attorney General Drew Wrigley released an opinion about a week before Election Day stating North Dakota has no constitutionally permissible method by which to require proof of citizenship to vote.

The candidates were asked their opinions on both issues during the forum, which was sponsored by the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Stacey Dahl, co-chair of the organization’s Government Affairs Committee. The District 43 forum followed an hour-long forum that featured candidates for Grand Forks County Commission .

Participating in the legislative forum were state House of Representatives candidates Mary Adams, a Democrat; Ethan Harsell, a Republican; Zac Ista, a Democrat; and Eric Murphy, a Republican. Adams and Ista are the incumbents.

Senate candidate JoNell Bakke, a Democrat and the district’s incumbent senator, also participated. Her opponent, Republican Jeff Barta, did not attend.

Voters in the district will decide the short-term political fate of each of those candidates, choosing two for the House and one for the Senate, on Nov. 8. That same day, they’ll also participate in a statewide vote to determine whether North Dakota should legalize recreational marijuana and whether the state should create term limits for members of the Legislature.

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The marijuana issue split the candidates Tuesday evening, with Harsell and Ista both saying they’re in favor of the proposal.

“I voted to legalize recreational marijuana in the House (where the measure failed) and will vote for it again on the ballot measure this year,” said Ista. He said it’s not a “slapdash measure that’s going to put a dispensary on every corner in every town in North Dakota.”

He said the measure is carefully drafted and strikes a balance between personal freedom, public health and safety.

“Marijuana is already in our community. We know people who use it. We have friends and family that use it. … There is no threat of jail time at all and I think we can better utilize our law enforcement resources to tackle dangerous drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine that are killing families across the state. Marijuana is not without risk … and we have to redouble our efforts to keep it out of juveniles’ hands and vigorously enforce laws to keep impaired drivers from behind the wheel, but at the end of the day, I trust responsible adults to make responsible decisions for themselves.”

Harsell said “I support Measure 2. I think most Americans use marijuana and they shouldn’t get prosecuted for it in North Dakota. I have many friends who use it and they should be able to when they want to.”

But the other candidates are leery.

“Well, I have to say it's something I have never tried. I am not sure, and there are a lot of people that talk about it that are for it and there are a lot of people that have used it since it was invented in the ’70s, or it came about or whatever that way. I don't know if it was invented or just, 'oh wow,' you know, or that type of thing,” Adams said. “But if we change the marijuana laws, we have to change the other laws to go with it. … Federal guidelines on marijuana are much stricter than what the states have, so there is that crossover. And there is a lot of federal work done in North Dakota, so if a worker can’t be on a federal payroll if he’s a marijuana user, then of course that workforce comes down, too. I don’t think at this time that it is a good thing for North Dakota.”

Bakke said she is against the proposal since marijuana is still illegal on the federal level.

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“That becomes a problem for me,” Bakke said. “Because then, who is in charge? The feds or the state? If we’re saying it’s OK but the feds say it isn’t, technically the federal law is supposed to supersede the state law. I think it’s a gray area.”

She cited workforce safety issues and said states that have legalized recreational use have had associated problems in the years since.

Murphy calls legalization “a touchy issue” and prefers to discuss it from a medical perspective. He worries about the effect of second-hand marijuana smoke on young people in the households of adults who would — if the measure passes — be smoking a legal, thus easier to acquire, product.

“The last time I was exposed to a lot of second-hand marijuana smoke was at a Willie Nelson concert back in the early ’80s and I had to stop for fast food three times on the way home — and it was 10 miles,” Murphy said. “

Today’s marijuana isn’t the same as it was a generation ago, he said.

“The reality is that THC levels are extremely high,” Murphy said, adding that medical issues — such as psychoses — are not being adequately discussed. And legalization, he believes, will only expand its use.

“So frankly, I just don’t support it,” he said.

With term limits, the five candidates who participated Tuesday are universally against the idea. A few noted that state voters already have the opportunity to enforce term limits on their own, by simply voting out candidates. A few also said institutional knowledge at the Legislature is important, and it takes time to get acquainted with the ins and outs of state government.

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District 43 generally encompasses the area in Grand Forks from DeMers Avenue on the north to 32nd Avenue on the south, and from Interstate 29 on the west to roughly 20th Street on the east. Its southeast portion also includes a thumb of area roughly from 24th Avenue on the north to 40th Avenue on the south and Columbia Road on the west to Washington Street on the east.

Voting on Election Day will be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the following sites in Grand Forks: Alerus Center, Holy Family (1018 18th Ave S.); Home of Economy (1508 N. Washington St.); and the ICON Arena/GF Park District Office (1060 47th Ave. S.)

A bit about the candidates:

  • Adams, a Democrat, is a Realtor in Grand Forks.
  • Harsell, a Republican, is a student at UND and teacher at United Day Nursery.
  • Ista, a Democrat, is an assistant state’s attorney for Grand Forks County.
  • Murphy, a Republican, is a faculty member at UND and CEO of Krampade, a local sports drink manufacturer.
  • Bakke, a Democrat, has a three decades background in elementary and special education and now is retired. She is an incumbent senator.
  • Barta, a Republican, is a licensed athletic trainer and small business owner/partner at Achieve Therapy.

Other stories about the District 43 race can be found on the Herald's website. They include include:

Related Topics: ELECTION 2022
Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

He is a member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. board of directors and, in the past, has served on boards for Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.


As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.



Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103, or via Twitter via @korriewenzel.
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