North Dakota activists have cleared a procedural hurdle to start collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in the state.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s office approved the measure’s formatting on Thursday about two weeks after advocates with New Approach North Dakota first filed it with the backing of the national Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
The proposal separately went through a legal review by the state attorney general’s office, which provided a title for the initiative.
The initiative 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.
Activists will need to collect 15,582 valid signatures from registered voters and turn them in by July 11 in order to qualify for the ballot.
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.
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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.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.