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North Dakota pot legalization group 'very confident' measure will make November ballot

Dave Owen, the chairman of New Approach North Dakota, said his group will continue collecting signatures for the next three weeks despite having already surpassed the minimum number required to make the November ballot.

Two people lean over to write on forms while a third looks on. A sign reads "Sign the petition to legalize marijuana here."
Bradley Foster watches patrons sign a petition for a ballot measure to legalize and regulate cannabis for adults in North Dakota during a signing drive at the Fargodome on Friday, June 10, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum
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BISMARCK — The group behind a proposed ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in North Dakota says it has gathered more than 16,000 signed petitions in just eight weeks.

New Approach North Dakota Chairman Dave Owen said Friday, June 17, his group will continue collecting signatures for the next three weeks despite having surpassed the minimum number required to make the November ballot.

The group, which began circulating petitions in April, needs to hand over 15,582 signatures from North Dakota residents to the secretary of state by July 11 to get the measure on the ballot this year.

Owen said his group hopes to turn in more than 21,500 signatures next month to ensure enough petitions meet all of the requirements to be considered valid by Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s office.

“You always need more than the minimum,” Owen said. “Now, it’s about building a suitable buffer … to ensure ballot access.”

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Owen said he’s “very confident” the legalization measure will land on the ballot, adding it’s “incredibly encouraging” that the group has been able to gather so many signatures in a short period of time.

If passed, the group’s proposed measure would legalize the possession and purchase of small amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older.

The 19-page statutory measure would also allow adult residents to grow limited amounts of cannabis and implement policies to regulate retail marijuana stores.

It’s been a tough year for measure groups trying to get their proposals on the ballot. Jaeger’s office recently blocked two proposed measures after finding thousands of signatures didn’t meet legal standards.

In March, the secretary of state rejected more than 29,000 signatures turned in by a conservative group promoting a measure to set term limits for North Dakota politicians. Last month, Jaeger’s office invalidated nearly 6,000 signatures turned in by a separate group aiming to raise the bar for amending the state constitution.

Owen said his group has already combed through its signatures and set aside those that might fail Jaeger’s review.

Even though Owen believes the group has about 16,000 good signatures, he said, “We’re not perfect,” and noted having more signatures than needed adds flexibility.

North Dakota voters approved the legalization of medical marijuana in 2016 but later rejected a recreational legalization measure backed by Owen in 2018.

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Owen said the 2018 measure failed, in part, because it was written as a legalization wishlist. This year’s measure includes stricter regulations and has been pored over by lawyers, he said.

The language of the proposed measure closely mirrors a 2021 bill that passed the Republican-led North Dakota House of Representatives but died in the state Senate.

Owen said attitudes toward legalization of recreational marijuana have changed in North Dakota, noting several conservative lawmakers said the passage of a legal pot program was inevitable.

The latest push to legalize the drug is also much more well-funded than the 2018 effort. Owen’s group has received more than half a million dollars from out-of-state donors and medical pot dispensaries.

Recreational pot is now legal in 19 states, including Montana, where voters elected to legalize the drug in 2020. A voter-approved legalization measure in South Dakota was deemed unconstitutional last year by the state's Supreme Court.

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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