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Out-of-state donors, medical marijuana dispensaries bankroll North Dakota pot legalization effort

The group behind a proposed ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in North Dakota has raised more than $500,000 to support its effort. Most of the campaign funds come from pro-pot organizations located in Washington, D.C.

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A proposed ballot measure would legalize the possession and purchase of small amounts of marijuana for North Dakota adults 21 and up.
File photo
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BISMARCK — The group behind a proposed ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in North Dakota has received more than half a million dollars from out-of-state donors and medical pot dispensaries.

The pro-legalization group argues its out-of-state benefactors want to ensure that North Dakotans have a chance to vote on the issue, but critical lawmakers say external interests are trying to foist new laws on the state.

Last month, New Approach North Dakota launched a late push to place a question on the November ballot about legalizing the possession and purchase of small amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and up. The group needs to gather 15,582 signatures from state residents by July 11 to get the measure on the ballot this year.

Campaign finance records reveal the group had deep-pocketed backers from the beginning of its drive to get on the ballot.

The Washington, D.C.-based New Approach Advocacy Fund has contributed more than $301,000 to the group this year.

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The fund is closely tied to a political action committee (PAC) of the same name that has supported legalization efforts across the country since 2014.

In 2020, the PAC donated more than $1.9 million to the promoters of a successful push to legalize recreational pot in Montana, according to state records.

During the same election cycle, the committee gave about $1.8 million to South Dakota groups pursuing legalization, according to Internal Revenue Service filings. (Voters approved separate medical and recreational legalization measures, but the South Dakota Supreme Court deemed the recreational measure unconstitutional.)

Spearheaded by attorney Graham Boyd, the PAC derives most of its funding from California-based organic soap company Dr. Bronner’s, according to IRS records.

Boyd did not respond to a request for comment sent via email, and a spokesperson for Dr. Bronner’s said the company’s “Cosmic Engagement Officer” David Bronner was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

The grandson of the soap company’s founder, David Bronner is an outspoken advocate for drug policy reform, including the legalization of cannabis.

The North Dakota legalization group has also received nearly $36,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which has funded attempts to legalize recreational and medical marijuana in many states.

Mark Friese, a Fargo defense lawyer who serves as New Approach North Dakota’s treasurer, referred to the advocacy fund and the Marijuana Policy Project as “national allies.”

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Three firms that operate medical marijuana dispensaries in the state donated another $175,000 to the North Dakota group, bringing its fundraising total to about $512,000.

State Sen. Janne Myrdal, an Edinburg Republican who opposed legalization during the last legislative session, said outsiders are attempting to push new laws onto North Dakotans with their six-figure donations.

“This is not a N.D. initiated measure — this is an out-of-state initiated measure,” Myrdal said.

Myrdal said legalization would be damaging and costly to North Dakotans, adding she hopes residents will “see through” the externally funded initiative.

Friese said state residents are leading the legalization charge, and the New Approach Advocacy Fund and the Marijuana Policy Project are supporting the proposed measure “because they believe the people of North Dakota should have the opportunity to decide this issue.”

“North Dakotans are circulating these petitions,” Friese said in an email. “North Dakotans are signing these petitions. And North Dakotans will decide the outcome of the election in November 2022.”

State Rep. Jason Dockter, a Bismarck Republican, proposed a legalization bill during the 2021 legislative session because he believed voters would soon legalize pot in the state if the lawmakers didn’t act. The proposal passed the House but died in the Senate after Myrdal and other social conservatives argued legal pot would be harmful to the state.

Dockter, who is personally opposed to legalized marijuana, said he’s disappointed lawmakers didn’t approve a highly restrictive recreational pot program when they had the chance.

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Now, voters may approve a slightly more open recreational pot program that would allow adult residents to grow up to three marijuana plants at home, and the Legislature would “have to live with it,” Dockter said.

“I don’t like outside funding dictating policy, but we didn’t get something passed (in 2021),” Dockter said. “If (the measure) passes… I’ll give a look to my colleagues and say ‘here we are now.’”

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

North Dakota voters approved the legalization of medical marijuana in 2016 against the wishes of many Republican state lawmakers but later rejected a recreational legalization measure in 2018.

Friese said the group will use most of the funding it has raised during the drive to get signatures. The campaign is using a combination of paid circulators and volunteers to gather signatures.

The group has already spent nearly $55,000, mostly to pay staff and legal advisers. Friese said it’s “unlikely but possible” the campaign will need to raise more money.

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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