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North Dakota Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Advances As Activists And Lawmakers Push Legalization Measures

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A bill to significantly expand marijuana decriminalization in North Dakota cleared a key House committee on Tuesday while a proposed resolution to have voters decide on legalizing cannabis in 2022 was defeated by the panel.

That said, the sponsor of the decriminalization legislation said she’d ask the legislature to defeat it if a separate bill to legalize adult-use cannabis ends up getting approved.

Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R) originally filed the decriminalization measure last month. The legislation, which would build on an initial marijuana decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019, advanced through the House Judiciary Committee after a 8-4 “do pass” vote.

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 new proposal would make possession of up to an ounce a non-criminal offense that carries a $50 fine.

Further, possession of more than one ounce and less than 250 grams would be treated as an infraction, rather than a class B misdemeanor, as it is currently classified.

“Basically we don’t want to create criminal records that are going to affect people into the future for possessing small quantities of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia,” she said during Tuesday’s meeting. “What we’ve recognized is this affects people’s ability to find jobs, housing, et cetera in the future. It affects their ability to be successful.”

Rep. Marvin Nelson (D) also introduced a resolution to the Judiciary Committee that proposes place a measure to amend the state Constitution to legalize marijuana before voters in 2022. That was shot down by the panel in a 10-2 “do not pass” recommendation.

Separately, a Republican lawmaker is pushing a cannabis legalization bill he introduced even though he does not support the underling policy change. Roers Jones said she would urge for her decriminalization bill’s defeat if the legalization measure, sponsored by Rep. Jason Dockter (R), is approved.

Dockter has said that he recognizes the seeming inevitability of legal marijuana reaching the state as more neighboring jurisdictions enact reform and as activists gain momentum for their agenda. If the state is going to enact legalization, he wants the legislature to dictate what that program looks like instead of leaving it in the hands of advocacy groups.

The bill is being supported by the pro-reform campaign Legalize ND. The group placed a legalization measure on the 2018 ballot that was defeated by voters. They tried to qualify another initiative last year but signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic got in the way.

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert (R) has 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 Dockter’s bill, Pollert said voter approval of a legalization initiative in South Dakota has given him pause, adding that the legislature should “take a long, hard look” at the policy change.

That said, a South Dakota state judge ruled this month that last year’s voter-approved legalization initiative is unconstitutional and cannot go forward—though advocates plan to appeal.

Neighboring Montana also moved to legalize marijuana for adult use during the November election, adding to the regional pressure to get on board. Canada, which also borders the state, has a national legal cannabis market.

Meanwhile, an activist group has already filed its own 2022 legal marijuana measure that would make it so adults could possess marijuana and grow up to 12 plants (up to six of which could be mature). Secretary of State Al Jaeger said last month that the group can begin working to gather the 26,904 valid signatures from registered voters they will need to place the measure on the ballot.

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