National marijuana reform leaders visit ND to offer support

FARGO -- The message to North Dakotans from one of the nation's most well-known marijuana reform organizations is fairly simple as voters consider a ballot measure to approve recreational marijuana this fall: They want to protect the personal fre...
The two national leaders of one of the country's best known organizations for reforming marijuana laws, NORML, were in North Dakota for a three-day stay to offer support to Measure 3. They were national political director Justin Strekal and executive director Erik Altieri. Dave Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO - The message to North Dakotans from one of the nation's most well-known marijuana reform organizations is fairly simple as voters consider a ballot measure to approve recreational marijuana this fall: They want to protect the personal freedom of responsible adults to smoke it without a negative effect on public safety.

The executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Erik Altieri, and federal political director, Justin Strekal, were in the state for a three-day visit starting Friday, Sept. 21, to discuss the issue through the media, hold a fundraiser, train volunteers supporting the measure and to "support our friends."

"We're not trying to create a Cheech and Chong universe here," said Strekal.

Rather, they say their fact-based organization is focused on laying out information on the issue using only state government and peer-reviewed studies from the nine states and the District of Columbia who have already legalized recreational use, and the 31 states with medical marijuana laws.

Altieri and Strekal said they wanted to object to some of the most controversial issues surrounding the measure, calling some announced by organizations opposed to the measure not true.

They said their team of lawyers believes that drugged driving laws would still be in effect if the measure is approved. And if there were any doubts, they said the North Dakota Legislature could swiftly move to close any possible loopholes.

Although they said a better method to detect if a person driving high is impaired is needed, they believe current DUI laws would apply.

"This is just a way to obscure the debate about personal freedom to consume marijuana in a person's own home, just as many are doing right now anyway," Altieri said.

Similarly, Altieri said the view presented by law enforcement organizations and the state organization fighting the measure that people could light up marijuana cigarettes wherever and whenever they wanted under the measure is a "bald-faced lie."

He said North Dakota's smoking law isn't tobacco-specific and would apply to marijuana cigarettes too, just as it does for vaping.

The organization also wanted to point out that legalization would take the profit out of the black market and put tax dollars into the state and local revenue flow and provide a safer supply to those already consuming marijuana in the state.

Rather, Strekal said a marijuana industry could be a new economic engine in the state for farmers or businesses selling or growing the product.

Strekal also said that North Dakota is fifth in the nation per capita in marijuana arrests and that "the time and money wasted by law officers and courts could be freed up to fight violent crime."

Bob Wefald, who heads North Dakotans Against the Legalization of Recreational Marijuana and is a former district court judge and attorney general, didn't return a phone message late Friday, but the organization has taken a strong stand against the measure and disagreed with the points made by the NORML leaders.

Wefald and the organization have stated that the law as currently proposed would not prevent drugged driving and smoking marijuana in public.

They also believe it would be the most liberal marijuana law in the country and is badly worded, making the state the "Wild West" for possessing, use, growing and distribution of marijuana in any amount.

The measure would also take effect in 30 days, which Wefald has said is hardly enough time to add regulations to the law by the state Legislature.

However, Altieri said a special session could be held and he doubted that waiting until the Legislature convenes in January would affect the ability to add regulations.

The organization doesn't want or hope to see any criminal activity be the result of the proposed measure, he added. They want people who use marijuana for medical purposes or recreationally at home after work or on weekends instead of an alcoholic drink to no longer be criminals under state law.