North Dakota House members voted down a marijuana decriminalization bill by a 47-43 margin on Wednesday.
The bill would have changed state law and made the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana or the possession of two marijuana plants or less a non-criminal offense punishable by a $200 fine, similar to a traffic offense. Possession of marijuana paraphernalia would have been a non-criminal offense also, with a fine of $100 if caught by law enforcement.
Current law says possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor crime with a penalty of up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. Any quantity over one ounce is currently a felony and as the amount increases, the penalties increase up to a $20,000 fine and 20 years in jail.
Judges, however, rarely dish out such punishment for small amounts of marijuana.
Main sponsor Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, argued the bill would give people a second chance if they were caught with a small amount and that this was a good compromise as an intermediary step instead of legalization.
She said young people caught with a small amount can have a criminal record that hurts in their chances for jobs and housing.
She also said the bill addressed some concerns that arose from the unsuccessful legalization ballot measure last November as police could still use drug dogs, employers could still have drug-free workplaces and it didn't reduce penalties for large quantities. The bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee on a 9-4 vote.
Rep. Pat Heinert, R-Bismarck, who used to be the sheriff in Burleigh County, also urged passage of the bill as he worked with Roers Jones and others on the bill.
He said there is a "tremendous amount" of marijuana in the state despite laws. "There's more than anyone thinks," he said.
He urged approval, but said that he didn't like the provision about the "delivery" of less than one ounce of marijuana; he said that could have been changed in the Senate.
However, other legislators spoke out about the measure.
Rep. Bill Tveit, R-Hazen, said he was opposed because it seemed like the Legislature was giving more people the opportunity to be a criminal. He said his wife was at a teenager addiction program this week and the young people there said it was a gateway drug and it shouldn't be legalized.
Rep. Chuck Damschen, R-Hampden, said he thought the voters spoke clearly about recreational marijuana in the last election and they know the difference between that and medical marijuana.
"I don't think the public wants to make it easier to have just a little bit of marijuana," he said. "I'm going to stand with the public."
Roers Jones said her proposed bill, as well as those dealing with drug courts and sealing certain criminal records, was an extension of criminal justice reform passed in the last session.
"It's a different way of looking at our criminal justice system rather than just meting out punishment and trying to figure out how to lead people towards rehabilitation and give them an opportunity to reset their lives," Roers Jones said before the vote.
Medical marijuana is legal in North Dakota after voters approved its use more than two years ago by a 63 percent to 37 percent margin, with the first dispensary expected to open within a few weeks in Fargo. Two manufacturing plants are currently operating in Fargo and Bismarck.
Legalizing recreational marijuana usage, however, failed in a statewide vote last November by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin, although the wording of the proposal with no possession limits and expunging of all marijuana-related records were deemed by many to be factors in the vote.