A bill to legalize marijuana in North Dakota that passed the House last month received its first hearing in a Senate committee on Monday, with debate centering mostly on who should shape the policy change that most observers increasingly see as inevitable: the legislature or voters.
With activists already mounting a signature gathering campaign to place a ballot initiative before voters in 2022 that would amend the state Constitution to legalize cannabis for adult use, legislators are now faced with a quandary. They could wait and see how that process unfolds, or they can advance more restrictive reform legislation sponsored by a Republican lawmaker who doesn’t even personally support ending prohibition.
That bill, led by Rep. Jason Dockter (R), narrowly passed the House. The Senate Human Services Committee took it up Monday, hearing from supporters, opponents and neutral parties alike. The panel didn’t vote on the measure, but the testimony offered a preview of the discussion that’s to be had over the coming weeks.
“I’ve said several times I’ve never smoked marijuana. I don’t believe in marijuana. But I also believe that I’d rather have us have good legislation than to put it in the Constitution,” Dockter said in opening comments. “I believe it’s the job of our lawmakers to have good policy, even if you don’t agree with what the topic that the bill has in it.”
Reform advocates might not agree that it’s ideal policy that the representative is putting forward, but it would certainly be a step forward. HB 1420 would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use, but home cultivation would not be allowed, for example.
The sponsor said he “want[s] to be proactive,” and that “a lot of times, we’re reactive in government.” He added that there’s a need “to have the regulations that makes [recreational legalization] as safe and as restrictive as possible, but still allowing it,” and his bill would accomplish that. “If we don’t do it now, it’s going to come through an initiated measure,” he said.
David Owen, chairman of the pro-reform group Legalize ND, testified in favor of the legislation. He said that “a majority of North Dakotans want this” and “the legislature isn’t representing the people on this issue.” So if lawmakers fail to act, voters will decide on their own via the ballot.
He also discussed how activists might not have pursued a constitutional, rather than statutory, measure. But because opposition is bringing in money from national groups and there’s a lack of trust the legislature wouldn’t seek to undermine any voter-approved ballot measure as has happened in other states, he said there’s a need to go that route.
“In a perfect world where everyone was acting in good faith, you would 100 percent do it in statute,” Owen said. “But when there’s a fear that one side isn’t going to act in good faith, that’s how things get in the Constitution.”
Legalize ND 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.
The state assistant attorney general also participated in Monday’s hearing, giving a section-by-section analysis of HB 1420.
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A separate cannabis bill recently approved by the House would put a 15 percent gross receipts tax on the sale of marijuana products, three percent of which would be transferred to the city or county in which the sale occurs. There would also be a ten percent excise tax on the sale of cannabis from a manufacturer to a dispensary. That legislation is set to be considered by the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a bill to significantly expand marijuana decriminalization in North Dakota cleared the House last month. But its sponsor, Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R), said she would recommend that lawmakers reject it if broader legalization legislation is approved.
Her bill would build on 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 new proposal would make possession of up to an ounce a non-criminal offense that carries a $50 fine
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 last month that last year’s voter-approved legalization initiative is unconstitutional and cannot go forward—though advocates have appealed the case to the state Supreme Court.
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.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.