BISMARCK — Like many of his Republican colleagues in the North Dakota Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner doesn't want recreational marijuana use to be legal in his state, but the Dickinson lawmaker said he sees the writing on the wall.

Neighboring South Dakota and Montana recently passed legalization measures, and Minnesota legislators are moving in that direction. Wardner and other Republicans believe a citizen-initiated legalization ballot measure will pass sooner or later at the ballot box in North Dakota, and if the Legislature doesn't preempt it, lawmakers will have little discretion over the pot program's rules.

For that reason, Wardner counts himself as a supporter of House Bill 1420, which would legalize recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and up under tight restrictions. The leader told Forum News Service on Monday, March 15, he's got "a gut feeling" the bill has enough support to pass the upper chamber, though he notes he hasn't formally polled other senators.

"I think there are many that are going to support this bill because everybody feels it's important that we have some type of control — a systematic rollout of recreational marijuana," Wardner said. "You've got to be smart in this business and know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em."

The fate of a high-profile bill to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults lies with the Senate after it passed through the House of Representatives last month. If the legislation gets through the Senate without amendment, it would end up on Gov. Doug Burgum's desk.

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The Senate Human Services Committee on Monday held a hearing on the bill, in which legalization advocates and opponents sparked up discussions about taxation, personal freedoms and impaired driving.

The committee didn't take action on the bill Monday, but Chairwoman Judy Lee said she hopes to send the proposal along to Senate Appropriations later this week. Lee, a West Fargo Republican, said it's likely her committee will consider a few technical amendments to the bill. If the amendments and bill are approved in the Senate, the legislation would have to go back to the House.

Under the current 48-page proposal:

  • Anyone 21 and older could possess up to one ounce, or 28.35 grams, of marijuana. The drug would still be prohibited for those under 21.
  • Residents could only use marijuana in private residences and on private property. Smoking the drug in the presence of those under 21 would still be illegal.
  • Users could not grow their own marijuana plants at home.

  • The state Department of Health could register up to seven marijuana manufacturing facilities and 18 dispensaries.

  • The legal pot program would start up on July 1, 2022.

Most legalization supporters back the bill despite taking issue with some of the restrictions and finer points of the proposal.

Dave Owen, chairman of Legalize ND, said if the Legislature passes the bill, his pro-pot organization would drop a plan for a ballot measure, give the state time to implement a program and help campaign against a separate citizen-driven effort to put legalization in the state Constitution — the greatest fear of many Republicans.

Owen noted that if ballot-measure campaigners get to write the pot program's rules instead of lawmakers, they might include the option to grow the drug at home or increase the quantity that drug users can carry.

Dave Owen, chairman of Legalize ND, delivers testimony about a marijuana legalization bill to the Senate Human Services Committee on Monday, March 15, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Dave Owen, chairman of Legalize ND, delivers testimony about a marijuana legalization bill to the Senate Human Services Committee on Monday, March 15, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

ShaunAnne Tangney, a retired Minot State University professor, said the choice to use marijuana should come down to personal freedom, adding that access to the drug should be regulated and controlled rather than sold on the black market. She said the state also could raise tax money by establishing a pot program.

The Senate Finance and Taxation Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on a companion bill that would set a 15% tax rate for consumers buying marijuana and a 10% levy on retailers selling the drug to dispensaries.

Stutsman County Sheriff Chad Kaiser opposed the bill, saying the issue of legalization should go before the voters, who failed a similar proposal in 2018.

Kaiser said legalization worries him because it's harder to test drivers impaired by marijuana and it would lead to more mental health issues. He added that legalized pot could drive more use among children and teens, especially if edible products are made available.

Rep. Bill Tveit, R-Hazen, urged his fellow lawmakers to give up their fear of a legalization referendum and create a pot-free haven for North Dakota families amid a sea of bordering territories with legal weed. Tveit said many teens in the state already have serious binge-drinking problems and legalizing pot would only exacerbate the abuse of illegal substances.

Lee believes using marijuana is "a very bad personal choice," but she said the Legislature must take action on legalization because "the train has left the station." Since lawmakers have access to experts and information, the legislative process would likely bear a better and more refined pot program than a ballot measure, she said.