FARGO — A bill about decriminalizing possession of a small amount of marijuana in North Dakota is expected to be voted upon on the House floor either Wednesday, Feb. 20, or Thursday, Feb. 21, at the latest.
House sponsor Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, said she feels "pretty good" about the bill passing as she has the support of Gov. Doug Burgum and has not heard any negative testimony or objections from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's office.
The bill would change state law and make the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana or the possession of two marijuana plants or fewer a noncriminal offense punishable by a $200 fine.
Current law says possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor crime with a penalty of up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. Any quantity over one ounce is currently a felony and as the amount increases, the penalties can increase up to a $20,000 fine and 20 years in jail.
Judges, however, rarely dish out such punishment for small amounts of marijuana.
Medical marijuana is legal in the state after voters by a 63 percent to 37 percent vote approved its use more than two years ago, with the first dispensary expected to open within a few weeks in Fargo. Two manufacturing plants are currently operating in Fargo and Bismarck.
Legalizing recreational marijuana usage, however, failed in a statewide vote last November by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin, although the wording of the proposal with no possession limits and expunging of all marijuana-related records were deemed by many to be factors in the vote.
The newly proposed law, House Bill 1155, has some criminal elements to it. The legislation would create a Class A misdemeanor if a person gives marijuana to someone under 21 years of age or someone lacking in mental capacity.
A person with more than an ounce and less than one pound or with more than two plants or fewer than 21 plants would be guilty of a Class B misdemeanor with penalties increasing for larger amounts up to a felony.
The bill also addresses possession of marijuana paraphernalia such as pipes, storage containers, growing tools and other items, making that a noncriminal offense with a fine of $100.
Possession of drug paraphernalia for other controlled substances such as meth or heroin would continue to be a Class A misdemeanor on the first offense, as would possession of those drugs.
Roers Jones said her proposed bill, as well as those dealing with drug courts and sealing certain criminal records, is an extension of criminal justice reform passed in the last session.
"It's a different way of looking at our criminal justice system rather than just meting out punishment and trying to figure out how to lead people towards rehabilitation and give them an opportunity to reset their lives," Roers Jones said.
She said there was some concern about the word "delivery," which would be allowed for under an ounce, in HB1155. But she said that was out of concern that if "two college roommates were passing a joint" they could be found guilty of delivery to one another when they couldn't be charged with possession.
If the bill passes the House, it will go to the Senate for consideration.