North Dakota could give the green light to recreational marijuana this session

Dylan Sherman

BISMARCK – A bill to legalize adult use of recreational marijuana, already passed in the House, now awaits action in the North Dakota Senate.

House Bill 1420 is seen in part as a way to forestall another ballot measure seeking to open the door to recreational marijuana more widely. In 2018, Measure 3 failed, only receiving 40% of votes cast. Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, the bill’s sponsor, said he would rather have the Legislature have control over the laws rather than possibly having recreational marijuana in the North Dakota Constitution.

House Bill 1420 is seen in part as a way to forestall another ballot measure seeking to open the door to recreational marijuana more widely. In 2018, Measure 3 failed, only receiving 40% of votes cast. Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, the bill’s sponsor, said he would rather have the Legislature have control over the laws rather than possibly having recreational marijuana in the North Dakota Constitution.

With neighboring states legalizing marijuana, Dockter said he felt it was only a matter of time before a ballot measure would pass legalizing marijuana in North Dakota. “I believe it is our job of our lawmakers to have good policy, even if you don’t agree with the topic of the bill,” he said.

Dockter, who said he doesn’t use marijuana himself, testified on the bill March 15 before the Senate Human Services Committee.

 “A lot of times we are reactive as government and I wanted to do something proactive,” he said. “If we don’t do it now, it is going to come through as an initiated measure.”

HB 1420 passed through the House by a vote of 56-38, with vocal opposition coming from representatives who are against legalizing recreational drug use.

Medical marijuana passed in 2016, and Lee said it was important then as it is now having her committee work on the bill and ensure it is clear for the state and public.

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, is chairwoman of the committee hearing the bill, and said while she does not favor legalizing marijuana, she recognizes that the “train has pretty much left the station” on this issue.

“It is kind of like a speed limit, in the sense that we need some state regulation so that those few who might abuse the situation don’t affect other people's lives,” she said.

Medical marijuana passed in 2016, and Lee said it was important then as it is now having her committee work on the bill and ensure it is clear for the state and public.

Lee said passing HB 1420 would be a way to ensure no one dies from using marijuana products that might be laced with other substances like fentanyl.

“It doesn’t mean they can’t buy it on the street corner and probably for less, but with the deaths coming about because of fentanyl-laced street drugs, we want to make sure there is an option,” she said.

While the bill was not introduced by proponents of recreational marijuana, Legalize ND, a pro-marijuana organization is in support of the bill. Dave Owen, chairman of Legalize ND, also testified before the committee on March 15.

“Ballot initiative is a process of last resort, and as a result it leads to undesirable outcomes,” he said. “What we have today is an opportunity to pass marijuana legalization through the Legislature.”

Owen added that if the Legislature passes this bill, his organization would not try any new ballot measures and would also campaign against any ballot measures on this issue.

“We are not going to pursue a ballot initiative if you pass this policy,” he said. “If you pass this, we’ll fight for you and we’ll give you the tools you need to protect it and implement it.”

If a ballot measure is needed for Legalize ND to get recreational marijuana passed in North Dakota, Owen said the terms will be dictated by out-of-state actors due to the funding being received.

“Do we want to have a marijuana legalization bill that’s passed with about 50% out-of-state interest and 50% North Dakota interest?” he said. “Or do we want the Legislature to step forward and lead on this?”

If HB 1420 is passed it would allow for adults, aged 21 and older, to possess one ounce of marijuana and smoke or use it on private property.

The bill also would allow for seven cannabis manufacturers in the state along with 18 dispensaries.

Opposition to legalizing marijuana was vocal during the committee hearing, with some coming from Rep. Bill Tveit, R-Hazen.

“It is not good for North Dakota,” he said.

Tveit read out a passage from a song, the same one he read during the House floor session on this bill, referencing how children want to do what their parents do.

“If it is not good for teens, it is not good for adults,” he said. “Give up your fear of a referendum by a minority of North Dakotans.”

Sheriff Chad Kaiser of Stutsman County added he believes the issue should go before voters again.

“I still think that this decision should be made by the people,” he said.  “The people spoke last time and they defeated it.”

If the people were to change their mind that would be OK, Kaiser said, as the people would be the ones making the decision.

Kaiser said law enforcement also does not have a quantitative way to measure if someone will receive a DUI while driving on marijuana.

Some tweaks are still needed for the bill, but Lee said the House had done a great job on the core of the bill, before it is sent over to Senate Appropriations.

Lee said she expects the bill to be one of the last ones her committee gets out, with the deadline being March 30.

“I would be very surprised if it were (a) unanimous (vote in committee),” she said. “We’ve got strong feelings on both sides in the body.”

Another bill tied to HB 1420 is HB 1501, which is a tax component to recreational marijuana. Introduced by Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier, the bill would tax all marijuana grown in North Dakota.

“We are going to impose a 15% gross receipts tax on the sale of adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Gross receipts on medical marijuana will not be subject to this tax.”

Headland said he had spoken with producers in the state, and they believed the state could generate anywhere from $6 million to $40 million during the first year.

“They anticipate a huge growth once it has become normalized,” he said. “It’s going to be a significant new revenue source for the state,” he said.

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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