With North Dakota among the states gradually reopening business amid the coronavirus pandemic, there’s renewed hope that a campaign to legalize marijuana could soon proceed after temporarily suspending signature gathering. But because of the setback in signature gathering efforts in recent weeks, activists say it’s more likely that the initiative will appear on the state’s 2022 ballot rather than the one voters will see this November.
Legalize ND, the group behind the measure, said last month that door-to-door signature collection would be put on pause due to the risk of spreading the virus. Many businesses that carried the petition on-site were also shuttered due to state orders and social distancing requirements.
The organization’s proposed initiative would allow adults to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching proposal the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses. Voters previously approved a medical cannabis legalization measure in 2016.
On Monday, the campaign signaled that activities may continue again on a limited basis now that North Dakota has entered into a first phase of reopening, allowing certain businesses to resume operations. Legalize ND is soliciting input from businesses that have their petition available for patrons to sign, though they said they feel “it is too soon” to have petitioners go door-to-door to gather signatures at this point.
“What we’re doing is, the state of North Dakota is in phase one of reopening and we want to make sure that business owners are comfortable carrying the petition in their establishment” before publicizing it for voters, Legalize ND’s David Owen told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Tuesday. “We don’t want to send a bunch of people to a business and for them to get spooked because of COVID or for them to not have the floor space to be able to handle it.”
So far, it seems that vaping retailers and headshops are most willing to allow voters to sign in support of the measure at their locations. Tattoo shops, meanwhile, carry more risks in terms of exposure to open skin and capacity restrictions, so those will likely not host petitions for the time being.
To qualify for the November ballot, activists would have to collect 13,452 valid signatures from registered voters by July 6. But if they don’t make that cut—and organizers say it’s likely it won’t be possible in that timeframe—the signatures they’ve collected so far won’t go to waste. They have a full calendar year from the launch of the campaign to gather the required signatures to appear on the next election cycle.
In this case, that means Legalize ND has until December to meet that requirement and qualify for the July 2022 primary election.
The debate over how and when to let petitioners go door-to-door largely comes down to differences in opinion among board members from rural and urban areas of the state, Owen said.
“North Dakota is weird, right? We have cities and we have rural areas,” he said. “In the super rural areas, it might be as simple as a mask and [santizing pens] every time you hand it to someone. But in, say, Fargo where you’re hitting apartment buildings and you’re going to hundreds of people, well maybe we don’t want to allow that yet.”
“It’s hard to create a one-size-fits-all policy for a state,” he said.
Asked what his message to supporters is during this period of uncertainty, Owen said the campaign is “going to try” to make the November ballot, “but we don’t want to put people’s lives at risk,” and it’s unlikely that they will meet that earlier deadline.
“Our whole thing is about ending people going to prison, our whole point is about ending the dangers of the war on drugs, so it would be irresponsible for us to endanger people while we try to do it,” he said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right. We’re going to try, but [qualifying for November] likely still isn’t in the cards. That just means we have more time to get prepared to push for that 2022 date.”
He added that while some who haven’t signed the petition yet might be compelled to head to businesses to sign it now that the state is reopening, individuals should practice serious caution, especially those who are immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable.
“If you are someone who hasn’t signed the petition and has issues—whether it be immuno, whether it be caring for someone—please don’t rush out to go sign the petition,” he said. “This is important, it’s not that important. It’s not worth killing yourself over.”
The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a serious and wide-ranging blow to the drug policy reform movement in 2020, with numerous campaigns either closing down or suspending. Several activists have asked for state assistance to help qualify for ballots, but those calls have largely gone unanswered.
A Montana cannabis legalization campaign that sued the state to allow digital signature collection had their case dismissed last week, but organizers say they may file an appeal and will be pushing ahead despite the legal setback.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort are petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow people to sign cannabis petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is currently reserved for individual candidates seeking public office.
A California campaign seeking to amend the state’s cannabis law also asked for a digital petitioning option.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 last month due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
Idaho medical cannabis activists announced that they are suspending their ballot campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”
Activists behind a campaign to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska are holding out hope that they will qualify and recently unveiled a new strategy amid the pandemic.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) conceded last month that the 2020 legalization push is “effectively over” in the legislature. Coronavirus shifted priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.
There have also been several COVID-related developments on the psychedelics reform front as well.
California activists had hoped to get a measure to legalize psilocybin on the state’s November ballot, but the campaign stalled out amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Organizers in Oregon are holding out hope that a measure to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes will make the ballot. The campaign already collected enough raw signatures to qualify, though they’ve yet to be validated.
Also in Oregon, a separate proposed ballot measure would decriminalize possession of all illicit drugs and use existing marijuana tax revenue to fund expanded treatment services. Activists in nearby Washington State are also working on a similar drug decriminalization and treatment measure.
Washington, D.C. activists behind a psychedelics decriminalization campaign are more confident that they will be able to make the ballot after the District Council voted in favor of a series of changes to signature gathering protocol on Tuesday. The campaign also has a new strategy to test the waters and deliver petitions and mailers directly to voters who could then sign and send them back to their headquarters.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.