North Dakota activists on Monday filed a petition to put marijuana legalization on the state’s November ballot after an earlier attempt to do so legislatively failed last year.
New Approach North Dakota’s measure would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and grow up to three plants for personal use. Its provisions largely mirror the House-passed legalization bill that was ultimately rejected by the Senate.
The coalition backing the new measure includes former law enforcement, a state lawmaker, local advocates and the national Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which has been behind numerous successful reform initiatives.
The petition filed with the secretary of state must now undergo a review with that office, as well as with the attorney general, before being potentially approved for signature gathering.
“This is direct democracy in action,” David Owen, a longtime activist in the state and campaign manager for New Approach North Dakota, said in a press release. “We’re excited to launch our signature drive, start talking with voters, and begin building support for our measure across the state.”
Here’s a breakdown of the measure’s key provisions:
Adults 21 and older could purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis, four grams of marijuana concentrate and flower produced from up to three plants grown for personal use, as long as that cannabis is stored in the same location that the plant was cultivated.
The Department of Health and Human Services, or a different agency designated by the legislature, would be responsible for creating rules for the program and overseeing licensing for marijuana businesses.
Regulators would have until October 1, 2023 to develop rules related to security, advertising, labeling, packaging and testing standards.
The department could only license a maximum of seven cultivation facilities and 18 retailers. In an effort to mitigate the risk of having the market monopolized by large companies, the initiative stipulates that no individual or entity would be permitted to own more than one cultivation facility or four retail locations.
There would be specific child custody protections for parents who use cannabis in compliance with state law.
Employers could continue to enforce existing drug policy prohibiting marijuana use.
With respect to past criminal records, the initiative would not provide a pathway for expungements, though activists say they intend to work with the legislature on enacting separate legislation addressing that issue in 2023.
Local jurisdictions would be able to prohibit marijuana businesses from operating in their area, and cannabis companies would also be required to adhere to local zoning rules.
The state’s five percent sales tax would apply to cannabis products, but no additional tax would be imposed specifically for marijuana.
Manufacturers would need to pay a biennial $110,000 registration fee and retailers would need to pay $90,000. Those funds would support the department’s implementation and administration of the adult-use program.
The initiative does not lay out any specific use of funds collected from these fees beyond administration.
Public consumption would be prohibited.
“North Dakota’s policy of punishing adults who use cannabis is the wrong approach. No one’s life should be derailed over a small amount of marijuana,” Mark Friese, a criminal defense attorney and former police officer who is serving as the campaign’s treasurer, said. “Our ballot measure is thoughtful and well-crafted, and I’m confident voters will approve it this November.”
If cleared by the secretary of state and attorney general’s offices, activists will have to collect 13,452 valid signatures from registered voters and turn them in at least 120 days before the November election in order to qualify for the ballot.
Rep. Matthew Ruby (R), an active duty military service member, said that he supports the initiative “because it removes barriers for North Dakota veterans and other people with health conditions who need access to cannabis for therapeutic reasons.”
“It will also create good jobs and new economic opportunities for farmers in our state. With reasonable controls and regulations in place, this measure represents a responsible approach to legalization,” he said. “Our neighbors in Montana are demonstrating that cannabis legalization can work successfully. Now it’s our turn to move forward.”
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Following that defeat, some senators devised a new plan to advance the issue by referring it to voters on the 2022 ballot. The resolution moved through a key committee last year, but the Senate also blocked it.
There have been repeated attempts by activists to enact legalization in the Peace Garden state.
Advocates with the group North Dakota Cannabis Caucus started collecting signatures to qualify a constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis for the 2022 ballot, but they did not gather enough by a January deadline.
Owen previously led an effort to place a legalization measure on the 2018 ballot that was defeated by voters. They filed another initiative for 2020, but signature gathering complications largely caused by the coronavirus pandemic got in the way.
Meanwhile, a bill to significantly expand marijuana decriminalization in North Dakota cleared the House last year but was later defeated in the Senate.
That legislation would have built upon an initial marijuana decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019. Under the current statute, possession of half an ounce or less of cannabis is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, with no jail time. The defeated proposal would’ve made possession of up to an ounce a non-criminal offense that carried a $50 fine.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert (R) previously said that he’s not “a marijuana person,” but he’s acknowledged that cannabis legalization is coming. While he would have previously been inclined to oppose a legalization bill, Pollert said voter approval of a legalization initiative in South Dakota has made him reconsider, adding that the legislature should “take a long, hard look” at the policy change.
Neighboring Montana also moved to legalize marijuana for adult use during the 2020 election, adding to the regional pressure to get on board. Canada, which also borders the state, has a national legal cannabis market.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.
Read the text of the New Approach North Dakota marijuana legalization initiative below:
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.