BISMARCK — A recently crafted resolution to put marijuana legalization on the ballot in North Dakota has tripped up at the first hurdle.
In a highly unusual procedural step, a closed vote to allow the resolution into the legislative pipeline failed Thursday, April 1, in the North Dakota Senate. Legislative Council Director John Bjornson said he can't recall another time that one of the chambers blocked the introduction of a piece of late legislation.
The resolution, backed by Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, would have put a question on the ballot in 2022 about legalizing recreational marijuana use for adults in the state. If voters had passed it, the Legislature would have been constitutionally compelled to create the framework of a legal cannabis program.
Wardner told Forum News Service the resolution is likely dead after the vote Thursday.
Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, who chairs the Senate committee that voted earlier this week to allow the introduction of the late-game marijuana resolution, said he searched the rulebook for a procedural lever to resurrect the measure, but came up short.
"It's my opinion that the Senate is done chatting about marijuana," he said. "And that's the end of the story."
But North Dakota voters may still get their say on the legalization question next year. Two pot advocacy organizations have stated their intentions to gather signatures and put measures on the ballot in 2022, including one that aims to cement legal cannabis in the state Constitution.
By putting a more conservative option for legalization on the ballot, Wardner and other Republican lawmakers had hoped to avoid a voter-approved legalization plan that allows for homegrown pot plants and higher possession limits. Wardner told Forum News Service he fears "a loud minority" of voters could pass one of the more lenient legalization options.
Dave Owen, chairman of pro-pot group Legalize ND, opposed the resolution from the beginning, saying it was a disingenuous effort by lawmakers who have no intention of ever legalizing recreational pot. Owen, whose organization plans to get a legalization measure on the ballot next year, said marijuana advocates will pick up the Legislature's slack and march on to 2022.
"The Senate finally shows its true colors and ends the charade of pretending to be interested in dealing with the question of marijuana legalization," Owen said.
North Dakota lawmakers, generally known to be socially conservative, came closer to legalizing pot through the legislative process than many observers anticipated. Republican legislators who backed the legalization bill but disapprove of marijuana use said they needed to be proactive to preempt a problematic voter-approved legal pot program that the Legislature couldn't adjust.
The push to legalize the drug came several months after voters in neighboring South Dakota and Montana passed citizen-initiated ballot measures, leading North Dakota lawmakers to believe it could happen in the Peace Garden State next. However, the last time residents voted on the issue in 2018, the measure failed by a near 20-point margin.