A North Dakota Senate committee on Monday advanced a bill to legalize marijuana in the state—but members did so without a recommendation on whether the legislature should pass or defeat it.
Lawmakers on the panel said the reason they were moving the House-passed legislation forward wasn’t because they necessarily want to create a regulated cannabis industry. Rather, members emphasized that they are taking “preventative” action to get ahead of a more far-reaching legalization initiative that activists are working to place before voters on the 2022 ballot.
Rep. Jason Dockter (R) is sponsoring the proposal, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use. Home cultivation would be prohibited, however. That’s one example of how the bill is intentionally more restrictive than the activist-led initiative.
The Senate Human Services Committee advanced Dockter’s legislation in a 5-1 vote, without a recommendation. First, members voted on whether to move it with a do-pass recommendation, but they came up tied, 3-3. Another vote on a do-not-pass recommendation was also split.
The panel held its first hearing on the reform measure last week. It has now been referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration before heading to the floor of the body.
“I think we need to look at this really carefully and try to figure out what’s best for North Dakota. And, no, I don’t like to be threatened by the fact there’s an initiated measure out there,” Human Services Chair Judy Lee (R) said. “But the reality is that it’s there, and we can’t ignore that fact.”
She called the measure “preventative maintenance” and likened the process of enacting a marijuana policy change to surgery, saying “nobody wants to have surgery, but frankly sometimes we need to do it in order to make sure that the outcome down the road is better health for the rest of us.”
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While several amendments are on the table, the committee initially appeared poised to deal with those later and simply advance HB 1420 as approved in the House last month and potentially attach the changes to separate legislation, which Dockter said would be his preference for handling his bill. But Sen. Howard Anderson (R) moved to adopt a revision that relates to criminal penalties, and it was accepted in a 5-1 vote.
“I understand that this is the way that the world is moving,” Sen. Kristin Roers (R) said. “I want the best, safest version of it that we can have, and that’s why I support it—not because I want this to be a free-for-all.”
Some advocates are supportive of the legislation, recognizing that it’s a step in the right direction, even if it’s more restrictive than the proposed legalization initiative, which would amend the state Constitution.
“We are happy the bill has moved out of Senate Human Resources and are proud to continue supporting the bill in its new amended state,” David Owen, chairman of the pro-reform group Legalize ND, told Marijuana Moment. “While a non-recommendation from committee is not ideal, we await continuing to work on the next steps of the process and hope the senators will show the same wisdom their colleagues in the House did.”
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 new legalization measure being circulated for 2022 is sponsored by a separate group.
A related 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 received a hearing in the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee last week.
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.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R) said last week that he has a “gut feeling” that a House-passed marijuana legalization bill has enough support to be approved in his chamber.
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.
To that point, one member of the committee said on Monday, “I don’t want this—absolutely don’t want it—but we are surrounded on all four sides by places that have recreational marijuana and so it’s not something that we can easily avoid. We can’t just cover our eyes and say everything is going to stop at the border.”
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.