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North Dakota Senate Rejects House-Passed Marijuana Legalization Bill, Ceding Issue To Activists For Ballot Measure



The North Dakota Senate on Thursday rejected a bill to legalize marijuana, killing the reform proposal that passed out of the House last month.

As the legislation has progressed this year, many lawmakers emphasized that they don’t actually support adult-use legalization, but they wanted to get ahead of activists who are working to place a more far-reaching constitutional initiative to enact the policy change on the 2022 ballot.

But with lawmakers’ failure to move the issue to the governor’s desk, it seems that voters may have to decide on legalizing cannabis after all.

Senators defeated the legalization measure in a 10-37 vote. This comes days after the Senate Human Services Committee advanced Rep. Jason Dockter’s (R) legislation in a 5-1 vote, without a recommendation.

The Senate also unanimously defeated separate legislation related to cannabis taxes and temporarily set aside another bill to expand the state’s existing cannabis decriminalization law.

“We are disappointed that the Senate did not follow the wisdom of the House, and as a result, we will be launching our ballot initiative shortly,” David Owens, chairman of the pro-reform group Legalize ND, told Marijuana Moment. “We said if you pass this, we won’t do an initiative. It hasn’t passed, so we’re going to do a ballot initiative.”

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Legalize ND was among certain pro-legalization groups that were supportive of the legislation, recognizing that it would be a step in the right direction, even if it’s more restrictive than the proposed legalization initiative, which would amend the state Constitution. The legislature’s bill, for example, does not allow for home cultivation.

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.

Now, the group will try again for the 2022 cycle. Meanwhile, a separate team of activists has already filed its own proposed legalization ballot measure for next year.

The tax bill that senators rejected on Thursday would have put a 15 percent gross receipts tax on the sale of marijuana products, three percent of which would’ve been transferred to the city or county in which the sale occurs. There would’ve also been a ten percent excise tax on the sale of cannabis from a manufacturer to a dispensary. That legislation advanced in the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee on Tuesday, with members unanimously recommending a do-pass.

Meanwhile, the bill to significantly expand marijuana decriminalization in North Dakota cleared the House last month and was laid on the table Senate. It received a 6-1 do-not-pass recommendation in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Owens expects the Senate to approve it in the coming days as a “compromise” after killing the legalization measure.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R), said she would’ve recommended that lawmakers reject it if broader legalization legislation was approved.

Her bill would build 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 new proposal would’ve made possession of up to an ounce a non-criminal offense that carried a $50 fine.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R) said this month that he has a “gut feeling” that a House-passed marijuana legalization bill had enough support to be approved in his chamber, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.

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 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.

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Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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