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North Dakotans are likely to have their say in legalizing recreational marijuana in November, following the submission of 18,700 signatures to the Secretary of State’s office Monday. A total of 13,452 signatures were needed to place the measure on the ballot.

“It’s great to see three to four years of hard work finally pay off, and to get people what they really want and what they deserve, because the people of North Dakota deserve this,” said Dave Owen, chairperson of the ND Legalization Initiative.

About 100 volunteers across the state began collecting signatures in December, reaching the requirement by May. Additional signatures were collected to provide a “pillow,” organizers said.

A total of 451 packets, each containing about 44 signatures, were submitted, according to Owen.

“If you want to do the pure arithmetic, it’s closer to 19,000 and some change, but always there are some bad ones,” he said, noting a ND Legalization Initiative volunteer counted 18,700 “valid” signatures.

“Not a single penny was spent on petitioning and gathering, because we wanted this to be the will of the people, not the will of some big company out in Lord knows where,” he said. “This is, primarily, a grassroots effort.”

Becky Muhs-Rettig, of West Fargo, who was responsible for collecting packets from across the state, was one of about 15 volunteers in attendance as the signatures were turned in Monday. 

“I want to scream, ‘It’s all done,’” she said.

In 2015, a group of North Dakotans was unsuccessful at placing a similar measure on the ballot. Owen, who was a part of that group, described this bill is “much better.”

“Our bill is a good bill,” he said. “It’s a bill that’s workable from day one, it makes sense, it’s going to create massive ag revenue … I’m just excited. I’m at a loss for words.”

According to the Legalize ND website, the measure “legalizes the use, sale, possession and distribution of marijuana for anyone 21 years or older. For anyone under the age of 21, the law creates a new specific subset of non-felony penalties. Additionally, the law legalizes ‘paraphernalia’ for marijuana exclusively. Finally, records are expunged for anyone that followed the new law even if it occurred in the past, except for cases of someone being under the age of 21.”

The majority of people who oppose the measure, oppose it for one of three reasons, according to Owen: the potential for “stoned” drivers, confusion about “expungement” and personal or religious reasons.

Owen says North Dakota will have the “strictest” law in the nation when it comes to marijuana use and operating a vehicle.

“I trust our police, they’re great people. They’re going to know how to see a bad driver who is on a substance, pull them over and stop them,” he said.

Convicted offenders will not be given a get-out-of-jail-free card with the passing of this measure, according to Owen.

“We’re not releasing a single individual from jail early, we’re not changing any existing sentences … What we’re doing, once they leave prison, their record is sealed,” he said.

Owen says the experiences and opinions of individuals who oppose the measure due to personal or religious reasons are “valid.”

“Maybe they had a bad experience with someone who was stoned. Those people … their experiences and opinions are valid,” he said. “Unfortunately, I can’t speak to their experiences in life. All I can say is, ‘Here’s what the data shows. I’m sorry you had a bad experience.’”

Owen says opioid- and meth use are the “bigger problems” and that it’s time to move on and legalize marijuana.

“This is not in the bag by any means. We’re going to have to work hard. We’re going to have to fight hard, which is why we need our grassroots to continue getting out there, knock those doors, pound that pavement, donate if you can,” he said.

The signatures must now be validated. The process could take up to 35 days, according to staff with the Secretary of State’s office. The drafting of the ballot measure will follow.

For more information, visit www.legalizend.com.

(Reach Cheryl McCormack at 701-250-8264 or cheryl.mccormack@bismarcktribune.com.)​

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General Assignment Reporter