BISMARCK — Rep. Jason Dockter has found himself in a strange predicament.
The Bismarck Republican doesn't believe marijuana should be legal, yet he's the prime sponsor of a bill that would legalize the drug for recreational use in North Dakota.
Dockter, who said he has never smoked pot, thinks attitudes toward the drug have altered so much in the past few years that it's likely only a matter of time before the wave of legalization reaches North Dakota. The state could soon be geographically surrounded by territories that allow marijuana use after South Dakota and Montana voters approved legalization measures last year. Legislation to legalize the drug in Minnesota has recently gained momentum, and recreational use is already permitted in Canada.
The tides seem to be turning in North Dakota, too. Voters in the state overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that legalized medicinal marijuana in 2016 despite vocal opposition from many Republican lawmakers. However, voters rejected a 2018 measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana.
If pot does become legal in North Dakota, Dockter wants lawmakers to draft the language of the law, rather than out-of-state interest groups that pour money into a ballot measure campaign.
Two marijuana advocacy organizations have already stated their intentions to gather signatures and put measures on the ballot in 2022 that would legalize the drug. One of the organizations aims to cement a legal cannabis amendment in the state Constitution — Dockter's greatest concern. The lawmaker's goal is to satisfy the pro-pot petitioners with his legislation while making "the best policy with the strictest restrictions."
"I'm not for (legalization) at all, but I understand that it's coming, and we have to address the issue," Dockter said. "I'm trying something different in government — we're trying to be proactive and not be reactive."
Under House Bill 1420:
- Anyone 21 and older can use, possess or transport up to one ounce of marijuana or an equivalent amount of edible marijuana products. The drug would still be prohibited for those under 21.
- Licensed dispensaries can sell anyone over 21 up to one ounce of marijuana.
- Manufacturing facilities can grow enough marijuana to "meet the demands of the public."
- Marijuana products must be sold in opaque, child-resistant packaging.
- The state Health Council would create rules to regulate the growth and sale of marijuana.
Driving while high or having an open container of marijuana in a car would still be illegal, and the legislation permits police officers to collect oral fluid from drivers to screen for marijuana use. The bill also specifies that people could still be criminally charged for possessing or using the drug on school grounds or jail property.
Fargo Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones said she shares in Dockter's philosophy on legalizing the drug and decided to join onto the bill as a co-sponsor to make sure North Dakota has "a controlled and reasonable approach" to the issue.
Other co-sponsors on the bill reflect the full range of the state's political spectrum. Bismarck Republican Rep. Rick Becker, the leader of the ultra-conservative Bastiat Caucus, has signed onto the proposal, along with several Democrats.
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee said the idea of legalization is broadly popular with Democratic lawmakers because the criminal justice system has been unfairly harsh to pot users, and the state could earn a significant amount of tax revenue through marijuana sales. However, the Fargo lawmaker noted that North Dakota "missed the boat" on creating a more exclusive industry like Colorado and other early adopters of legalization.
Dockter said his conservative colleagues have mostly expressed support for the bill, but he acknowledged that nothing is certain until lawmakers vote on the proposal.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said he's not "a marijuana person," but he noted that the Legislature has to "take a long, hard look" at legalization given some of the recent movement in neighboring states. The Carrington Republican said he would have certainly voted against Dockter's bill a few years ago, but South Dakota's surprising legalization of the drug has left him undecided on the issue for now.
At least one national anti-legalization group has come out against Dockter's bill. Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Virginia-based Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said the legislation would benefit "Big Pot" while hurting public health.
“We have seen each and every attempt to regulate this industry fail while the promotion of marijuana has led to negative outcomes for health and safety," Sabet said in a statement.
A representative for advocacy group Legalize ND did not respond for comment in time for publication. The group led the unsuccessful 2018 legalization attempt and failed to get enough signatures to appear on the 2020 ballot with a renewed effort.
If the legalization push fails, Roers Jones has devised a back-up plan that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug. House Bill 1201 would eliminate any criminal penalty for carrying up to one ounce of marijuana, instead of slapping offenders with just a $50 fine. The bill would also lessen the offenses for carrying large amounts of pot.
Roers Jones said she filed the bill because people caught with a little marijuana shouldn't be hit with criminal charges that could negatively affect their future. Pollert said he's not in favor of easing the possession penalties, noting that lawmakers already loosened the law in 2019 and "we have to draw the line somewhere."