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ND lawmakers hear conflicting messages on recreational marijuana

Two measures that aim to legalize the drug could appear on the ballot then if organizers can gather enough signatures.

Marijuana legalization proponent David Owen testifies before a North Dakota legislative committee at the state Capitol Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers heard from supporters, opponents and field experts on the issue of recreational marijuana nine months before voters in the state could opt to legalize the drug.

The interim Judiciary Committee met at the state Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 4, and moved forward with a study that began last fall on how legalization would affect the state's economy, public health, legal system and existing medical marijuana program. The committee's chairman, Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, said it would produce a report of its findings before the Nov. 3 election.

Two measures that aim to legalize the drug could appear on the 2020 ballot if organizers can gather enough signatures. Dave Owen, who is leading one of the campaigns, said advocacy group Legalize ND has gathered about 10-15% of the more than 13,000 signatures it needs to turn in by early July to get the measure on the ballot.

Voters rejected Owen's first attempt to legalize recreational in 2018 by a significant margin. The newly proposed initiative has been re-drafted and does not include a provision that would erase prior marijuana-related convictions.

Five presenters offered testimony Tuesday, including Jodi Bjornson, a lawyer from North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance. She said the legalization of recreational pot could have implications for workers' compensation.


Currently, if a worker under the influence of marijuana suffers an injury on the job, the impairment would be presumed to have caused the injury, and the worker would not have grounds to file a claim. That could be flipped if recreational marijuana were legalized, unless lawmakers made a specific rule to keep the current arrangement in place, Bjornson said.

Joel Blanchard, a doctor and medical director at Sanford Health, testified on some of the adverse health and social effects of marijuana use, but he also noted that very little hard research has been performed on the drug given its longtime illegal status. Blanchard said there is evidence that marijuana use can dangerously impair drivers and negatively impact brain development in young people.

Winston Satran, an opponent of legal pot, told lawmakers several anecdotes from his time as the warden of the North Dakota State Penitentiary. He linked the marijuana-related convictions and the prevalence of the drug in the prison system to the suicide deaths of two inmates, including one who was "obviously mentally ill and also a Satanic worshiper." Satran also spoke about a former correctional officer who was smuggling in marijuana for prisoners and suffered from severe depression because of his son's issues with addiction.

Rep. Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks, said he didn't see how Satran's stories related to marijuana use or the question of legalization. Vetter noted that the cases seemed to be more centered around mental health issues than drug activity or usage.

Owen also spoke before the committee and tried to address questions and perceived misconceptions about marijuana use and the proposed initiative. Owen has maintained since the study began that the Republican-led committee would steer the process toward issuing an anti-pot report instead of trying to find out the logistical implications of the drug becoming legal. He said he was disappointed that several of the speakers at Tuesday's meeting, including himself, were not able to offer the expert perspectives the committee should be seeking out.

"They're going to use this [report] to put the Legislature's stamp of disapproval on the concept of legalization," Owen said. "The attitude of this committee by who they're calling [to speak on the issue] shows me we've got 10 people who don't want to engage."

Klemin rejected Owen's claim, saying the committee has been fair to Owen and that anyone could testify on the matter.

"If [Owen] wants to have somebody else come and talk about [logistical implications], we're certainly open to that, but he hasn't done that," Klemin said.


Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, said she personally opposes legalizing recreational marijuana because of the state's struggles with overuse of "social intoxicants," but she noted the new proposed initiative is much better than the 2018 version. The first-term lawmaker said she shares some of Owen's concerns about how the committee has performed the study.

"Even though the testimony today was more helpful... I think that we have missed some opportunities to look into the implications rather than just talking about whether or not it should or should not be legalized," Roers Jones said. "That's going to be decided by the people in November if one of two measures makes it on the ballot."

Klemin said he expects the topic of recreational marijuana to come up in the committee's final three meetings before the 2021 legislative session.

Voters elected to legalize medical marijuana in 2016 to the surprise of many lawmakers. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana since 2012.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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