FARGO — While North Dakota legislators continue work on a possible marijuana decriminalization bill, a group that attempted legalization last year has decided to make another attempt in the 2020 election.
Legalize ND hosted a meeting with about 50 people ranging in age from college students to "grandpas" on the North Dakota State University campus Thursday night to gather input on what the next ballot measure should look like.
The group, again headed by chairman David Owen, of Grand Forks, may hold another meeting but is also gathering input through its Facebook page, soon-to-be revived website and email.
By early or mid-summer, the group hopes to have the ballot measure language in place so they can begin the process of again gathering 13,452 signatures to get it on the November 2020 ballot.
Owen said they were holding back on going the full legalization route to see if the Legislature would "keep its promise" and pass an acceptable decriminalization bill. That current amendment passed by the Senate 37-10 Thursday calls for decriminalization for possession of under a half ounce of pot and for marijuana paraphernalia as well as calling for an interim study on marijuana laws in the state.
Owen said they had hoped for decriminalization for under an ounce and to allow people to grow a few of their own plants for medical or recreational use.
Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, who has been working for months on a decriminalization bill, said she just didn't think she could get votes for that stronger measure. She said having Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem backing some sort of decriminalization has helped.
"But it's critical that we do something," she said. "We need to satisfy some of the people who want the penalties to go away for possessing a small amount of marijuana but don't want to take the big step towards legalization."
She does think the new measure Legalize ND is examining will be "more palatable to the public."
Assisted by a North Dakota attorney, the group's new ballot initiative will be drastically different than the last proposal; it will include possession limits, growing limits, taxes on sales, banning of edible gummies, packaging and licensing requirements and wouldn't allow any type of advertising of products, as a few examples.
Owen said it was also decided that the proposal would no longer have the state expunge marijuana convictions from a person's record.
"People just say, 'you broke the law' and don't think that should happen," he said. However, Owen said he found it interesting that the Legislature was able to advance a bill sealing DUI records after seven years if no other criminal violations occur.
Owen said they are seeking input on 37 questions about what the ballot measure should look like that include such items as local control of selling operations, licensing fees, banning sales to persons under 21, establishing a marijuana tax, how many plants should be allowed and how much in possession.
The questions also address possible inclusion language giving employers the right to enforce workplace rules concerning marijuana use, limiting market concentration to allow more competition among dispensaries, reducing penalties for persons under 21 caught possessing small amounts and allowing a person convicted of a more minor marijuana charge to petition for resentencing.
Owen said they simply want people to submit their responses to any of the 37 questions.
Meanwhile, the man who successfully led the defeat of the last legalization bill, former judge and attorney general Bob Wefald, said he was still hopeful that the Legislature would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession this session which he believes could "dampen enthusiasm for full-scale legalization."
Wefald said he didn't know if he would want to lead the charge again against the measure. He suggested perhaps legislators who oppose decriminalization should take over the leadership positions.
He said the legislators against decriminalization point to the 2018 vote when defending their votes. However, Wefald, who traveled the state speaking out against the measure on what he called a "shoestring budget," said they might be misreading why some people voted against it by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin.
Many were opposed because "they simply thought it was a poorly drafted proposal with no controls and allowed the wholesale growing and possession of marijuana," he said.
Wefald thought that Legalize ND would probably do a better job of writing the bill this time around and that he would want to see what they come up with before deciding on any possible role in opposition.
Owen is hoping to attract more sponsors to help get the new drive off the ground. He said four more sponsors committed at the Thursday meeting to add to the 20 who have already agreed to either donate $1,000 to the campaign or collect 500 signatures.
People can give input on the ballot proposal through the email at LegalizeND2020@gmail.com, on the Facebook page or the website that will be developed again soon, Owen said.