The issue of marijuana in North Dakota has been a political topic for about four years now. In November 2015, the Secretary of State’s office approved the petition for medical marijuana. The needed signatures were gathered and voters overwhelmingly approved with nearly 64% of the vote in November of 2016. Months later, the legislature gave it an overhaul during the 2017 Legislative Session. In August of last year, Legalize ND turned in the required signatures to place the issue of recreational marijuana on the ballot, after failing to get enough in 2016. This resulted in a fear campaign against the measure, and it ultimately failed— yet, still got over 40% of the vote. Not to be deterred, Legalize ND announced two months ago that it’s going to give it another try in 2020. Just last month, a new group came forward and submitted a petition for approval to also take another shot at recreational, but it was withdrawn after issues came to light with their sponsoring committee and the petition itself.
One of the bills taken up early on in the recent 2019 Legislative Session was Rep. Kim Koppelman’s (R – District 13) House Bill 1519. This bill added a number of approved conditions to the state’s medical marijuana law. But in addition to that, it was also amended to consider a study of “the list of debilitating medical conditions under the medical marijuana program to determine the appropriateness of the list, including whether conditions should be added to or removed from the list.”
In addition to HB 1519, one of the big stories going into the 2019 Legislative Session was Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R – District 46) proposing a bill that would decriminalize marijuana. For the most part, I think people expected her bill to pass— but it didn’t. It was defeated by a vote of 43-47 just before crossover. And to add insult to injury, House Majority Leader Chet Pollert (R – District 29) put a clincher motion on it to prohibit the bill from being taken up again.
This defeat wasn’t the end though. As is often the case in the legislative process, there’s ways around things like clincher motions. The Senate amended a separate bill of Rep. Jones’– House Bill 1050 — to include added provisions that some called decriminalization. In its original form, the bill simply provided flexibility for the Department of Corrections to place those imprisoned for drug paraphernalia in a drug treatment program instead. Jones made it clear on the House floor and in the media that she didn’t consider the amendments to be decriminalization at all and that she was disappointed in the final product. But the bill passed anyhow, Governor Burgum signed it into law, and many hailed it as the decriminalization Rep. Jones says it isn’t. Also found in that bill was a provision to “consider studying the implications of the potential adoption of an initiated measure allowing the use of recreational marijuana.”
A document is now available for viewing on the legislature’s website that shows which studies were adopted by Legislative Management and which were rejected. As you can see here, they’ve rejected the study on medical marijuana and accepted the one on recreational.
Why would Legislative Management reject a study that could potentially result in the legislature further expanding the list of conditions for those wanting to qualify for a medical marijuana card? And on the other hand, why study the “implications” of passing an initiated measure permitting the use of recreational marijuana?
Of those two questions, it may be the one regarding the study of recreational marijuana that will be most troubling to those who favor legalization. Why? Because the study could very well be a signal of things to come if Legalize ND is successful in their renewed attempt to legalize recreational marijuana in North Dakota. In short, the legislature could very well be gearing up for an overhaul of any ballot measure that passes— reminiscent of what happened with medical marijuana in 2017. And this study may be the catalyst for doing just that.
If this isn’t enough to convince you, consider these comments from Senator Oley Larsen (R – District 3), during debate on the aforementioned bill that resulted in the study:
“I know that we are trying to stave off the initiated measure — or the ballot measure — whatever, because they’re gonna come forward with their idea. So, let’s try to appease it and then maybe it’ll get defeated. I say that we defeat this bill, because they already have the ballot measure. It’s gonna be coming forward. And then if it passes, it can come back to the legislature and we’ll fix it like we did with the medical marijuana.”
Let’s be clear— Senator Larsen was opposing passage of the bill that included the study on recreational marijuana. But he wasn’t opposing it because of the study. He thought the fines included in the supposed “decriminalization” amendments were too low— “peanuts” as he called them. And it’s clear he supports a “fix” to anything passed on the ballot permitting the use of recreational marijuana.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have high regard for Senator Larsen. He’s the best that there is in the Senate. But it’s comments like this — when put together with the study approved by Legislative Management — that would lead me and others to believe that the groundwork is being laid to tweak anything the voters might pass in 2020. Otherwise, why bother studying it?
We’re now over two and a half years removed from voters approving medical marijuana, and North Dakota still doesn’t have all their dispensaries up and running. The first one didn’t open until March of this year. Advocates of medical marijuana largely view the state as having drug their feet on the issue. Those who support legalization of recreational marijuana rightfully see the majority of the legislature as being antagonistic towards the idea.
Given the history of these issues, lawmakers should proceed with caution. From my understanding, Legalize ND plans on addressing the issues that led to their 2018 defeat. So, if voters approve of some form of recreational marijuana in 2020 — which I believe they’re likely to do — they may not take kindly to another overhaul.
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