GRAND FORKS -- A petition to decriminalize marijuana in North Dakota is seen by some as overbroad, but backers of the petition said the potential measure was made that way to force legislators to pass regulations if they want to.
What that regulation will look like probably won’t begin to take shape unless voters approve the ballot measure in November.
Legalize ND is collecting signatures for a petition that calls for the legalization of marijuana. If put on the ballot, voters would decide if the use, sale, possession and distribution of marijuana for anyone at least 21 years old should be legal.
“Our philosophy was, it is less dangerous than alcohol. Therefore, it must be regulated less than alcohol,” said Dave Owen, the chair of Legalize ND. “We envision a world where a marijuana owner is no longer viewed as a menace to society and a shady guy. We envision one where he is treated as a respected member of the community because he is providing a service.”
The petition has no limit on how much marijuana a person can have, nor does it create any legislation that would regulate the sale of marijuana.
That was an intentional move by Legalize ND. The group behind writing the petition wanted to accomplish four issues: legalize marijuana for individuals at least 21 years old; expunge marijuana-related records without early release; create a business-friendly, low-level regulation approach to the potential law and protect businesses from the federal government while making a law that fits the state’s agricultural culture, Owen said.
Legalize ND did not want legalization to be delayed in the Legislature, so no appropriations or regulations that would require the development of a regulatory agency were put into the petition, Owen said.
In other words, if the majority of North Dakota voters check the “yes” box in November, marijuana would be legal in the state 30 days later, according to organizers.
“It puts the onus on them to add regulation and, therefore, they cannot use a lack of funding as a reason to deny it,” he said of legislators. “As the law is written, it requires zero dollars to enact.”
Grand Forks State’s Attorney David Jones said legalization to some extent likely will come to North Dakota, but he questioned whether the petition at hand is the right way to do it.
“My view on this is that it is really broad,” he said.
If the petition is approved in November, the Legislature would need a two-thirds vote to change the text, Secretary of State Al Jaeger said. That includes limiting the amount a person can have at one time, Owen said.
“It’s one thing to say we are going to have this, and then it’s quite another thing to say how we are going to regulate this,” Jones said.
Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said he hasn’t read the petition but noted the Legislature should do whatever it needs to implement the petition if the voters approve it.
“Would there be legislators who would oppose it even if the voters said they want this? Absolutely, there will be,” Holmberg said. “At the end of the day, it’s our job to follow the will of the people. If they say they want it, it is not my job to stand in the way of the voters.”
If the petition passes, Owen said he is ready to head to Bismarck the day it passes to speak with legislators.
“We will need to have the ability to get to these legislators and really have a conversation about what’s going on,” he said. “There are going to be some things in here the legislators don’t like, and we are going to have to see where we can stop a two-thirds majority and where a two-thirds majority can go through.”
Expungement means marijuana-related crimes would be sealed from public record. That would happen after the case is closed and any sentence is served.
One of the goals of the petition was to “right previous wrongs” without early release, Owen said.
“It doesn’t release anybody from prison early, and it does not affect pending cases unless the (attorney general) wants it to,” he said.
If a person doesn’t have any convictions within 30 days of being released from jail or prison, the records would be expunged.
Jones said expungement is possible. The court system has a process to expunge records, but looking through every case could take time, he said. He also said the court system would need some direction.
“I would think in the age of computers, we could probably develop a process we could work through,” he said.
He also questioned how to handle cases that have multiple charges that are not marijuana-related.
“We aren’t just going to go through and expunge Case 1,” he said. “We would have to go through them individually by count to clean those out.”
Last year, more than 50 percent of drug arrests in North Dakota involved marijuana, according to the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office.
If marijuana is legalized, a judge shouldn’t be able to use a previous marijuana charge to tack on a heavier sentence in another crime, nor should a business be able to deny employment to a person for something backers feel should never have been illegal, Legalize ND Campaign Manager Josh Dryer said.
“Basically, our philosophy is, when we deem something legal with the idea that it never should have been illegal in the first place, morally it wasn’t just to not expunge prior records,” he said.