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Dave Owen, middle, chairman of the North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative, celebrates a high-five with volunteer Becky-Muhs-Rettig inside the secretary of state's office at the state Capitol on July 9 in Bismarck. More than a dozen volunteers filed into the room to submit the more than 18,000 petitioned signatures to Al Jaeger's office. The measure would legalize the growing, possessing, distribution and use of marijuana for people over 21 years old. If the measure signatures are verified, it will be placed on the November ballot. 

Two years ago, Dave Owen collected signatures for the medical marijuana initiated measure in North Dakota.

He said he supported the measure and is “a big fan of medical marijuana,” but that its implementation got bogged down in too many details, leading to delays involving the Legislature. Twenty-one months after voters overwhelmingly approved the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act, medical marijuana has yet to be available to patients in the state.

Now Owen is the chairperson of the sponsoring committee behind the statutory initiative of legalizing marijuana by a vote in November. On Monday, North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger approved signatures for qualification to place the measure on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Of the 17,695 signatures submitted, Jaeger's office accepted 14,637 as qualified.

Owen said the effort for marijuana legalization learned a few things from medical marijuana in 2016. He said he wrote a “very simple” measure that is “implementable on day one,” is modular for cities’ zoning and uses an existing business licensure system.

“This (measure) is basically a referendum,” Owen said. “Do you want recreational marijuana? Yes or no.”

While the measure awaits a November vote, it’s already heard some echoes —including from North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who told reporters in June that marijuana legalization would not make the state better off.

Marijuana accounted for about half the drug arrests in North Dakota last year, according to statistics Stenehjem released in June. Owen said, with marijuana legalization, law enforcement officers would have more time to investigate violent crimes.

Stenehjem said marijuana legalization could lead to problems in other areas of crime, such as driving under the influence.

“It could put pressure on the treatment providers because there are a number of people who are in treatment where marijuana is their No. 1 drug of choice, so I think it just might shift the law enforcement issues from one place to another,” he told reporters. “I’ve said for a long time that I don’t think, if marijuana is legalized in North Dakota, we will be healthier or safer.”

Bismarck Police Chief Dave Draovitch said legalization could be “problematic” and lead to more DUIs and crashes, while “there’s no effective way” to determine if a driver is under the influence of marijuana. There’s no device such as there are breathalyzers for alcohol, though police do have drug recognition experts, but Draovitch said “they’re limited.”

If passed, Owen said marijuana legalization wouldn’t apply retroactively to pending charges. Anyone incarcerated would have to finish their sentence. No one younger than 21 could consume marijuana, and no one could sell to anyone under 21 — just like for alcohol, Owen said.

Criminal records related to marijuana would be sealed for adjudicated defendants “so they can get student loans, get jobs, better themselves and start contributing to society,” Owen said.

As for marijuana being illegal under federal law, Owen said he sees legalization as a states' rights issue.

Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association, said prosecutors haven’t met to specifically discuss the marijuana legalization measure, but could come out with a stance in the months ahead.

“It’s going to be an interesting November,” Birst said.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Crime and Courts Reporter