North Dakota's Senate could revive the question of legalizing recreational marijuana, but through a ballot measure put to voters -- one of potentially three that could appear next year.
The chamber last week soundly defeated a bill to legalize but restrict the drug for recreational use. The 50-page bill, which passed the House, came as an effort by lawmakers to head off a proposed citizen-initiated measure to legalize marijuana through the state constitution, as South Dakota voters did in 2020. Montana voters also approved recreational marijuana last year.
The Senate Delayed Bills Committee on Tuesday approved 3-2 the introduction of a constitutional resolution by Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, for a June 2022 measure. The five-member panel considers whether to allow the introduction of legislation beyond introduction deadlines.
The proposed measure will get a hearing likely before the Senate Human Services Committee, which will make a recommendation on passage before a vote of the chamber. The House and Senate both would have to approve sending the measure to voters.
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"Let's find out if the people really want it," said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson. "That's the bottom line. We don't know if the people really want it, or is it just a loud group?"
Dever said he introduced the resolution because he'd prefer the public vote yes or no on the idea of recreational marijuana with a directive to the Legislature, if passed. He made similar comments during the Senate's floor debate on the bill last week.
"Rather than passing it and putting it in place, we should ask the voters if they want it," Dever told reporters. He voted against the bill the Senate defeated last week, and does not support recreational marijuana.
The proposed measure is short, asking voters to approve whether "the legislative assembly shall authorize and regulate the manufacture, sale, and use of adult-use cannabis in the state."
Two groups have been pushing ballot measures in recent years to legalize recreational marijuana through either state law or the constitution.
North Dakota Cannabis Caucus Chairwoman Jody Vetter, of Bismarck, told the Tribune on Tuesday that her group is proceeding with gathering signatures for a constitutional initiative, eyed for June 2022.
Vetter said she still prefers a constitutional initiative, seeing the Legislature as opposed to home-growing of marijuana plants. Her group's measure would allow up to 12 plants.
The group's proposed measure also would restrict recreational marijuana to people 21 and older, ban its use in public and allow the Legislature to license and regulate the industry.
"We're still moving forward," Vetter said.
Legalize ND Chairman David Owen said earlier this month that his group would bring a ballot measure should the bill that was before the Senate be defeated. He said on Tuesday that the proposed resolution "feels like a cynical attempt to kick the can down the road," delaying action until the 2023 Legislature.
Dever's resolution caught the group "off foot," he said. The group probably won't discuss whether to now bring a measure until after the Easter holiday, he said.
North Dakota voters in 2018 defeated Legalize ND's ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana, with 59% opposed. Efforts to put the question on the ballot failed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic inhibiting signature gathering. Marijuana remains federally illegal.
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