FARGO — A bill that would have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in North Dakota failed by just four votes in the House on Wednesday, Feb. 20, and its prime sponsor is extremely frustrated.
The controversial bill failed by a 47-43 margin, among the closest votes in this year's session, just before the House closed out the first part of its 2019 session. Then, just a short time after the vote on the bill the House's Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, put a "clincher" on all of the bills, meaning they couldn't be reconsidered and were thus killed.
Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, said in an interview late Wednesday night as the legislators began a break until next Wednesday, Feb. 27, that none of the other bills appeared in danger of flipping the other way so she wondered about the motives behind that move in the final minutes.
Roers Jones, who has been fighting the past two sessions for changes in the criminal justice system that would give more young people second chances, said she was "really surprised" by some of the "no" votes on her bill and that after visiting with some of those legislators, she thought she could have had the bill reconsidered and flipped so it would have moved to the Senate.
But the "clincher" ended any hope of that.
Roers Jones, the mother of three children who represents part of south Fargo, said it's not unusual to reconsider bills and that other bills were brought up for reconsideration on Wednesday, the final day that bills could be moved over to the Senate, or vice versa, in a legislative deadline called "crossover."
In addition, with the bill being killed, Roers Jones said she had a message from the organizers of last year's initiated ballot measure calling for the legalization of recreational marijuana in North Dakota that said because of the House's vote, they were again going to start another effort for legalization on the 2020 ballot.
One of the leaders of that 2018 ballot measure, David Owen of Grand Forks, verified that decision on Thursday.
"We were kind of iffy on having another ballot initiative," he said. "But now we are 100 percent in. We just don't think people should go to prison or jail" for possessing marijuana.
Not only, however, was Roers Jones frustrated with the final minute move by Pollert, but she also felt like her effort was being opposed throughout the session and that she wasn't allowed to let the process work.
"I think there were forces against me," she said.
In addition to the "clincher" move, she also said that when her bill was heard in committee, she was only given a half hour hearing, while many others can last hours. That was only 15 minutes for the pros and 15 minutes for cons on the bill, which despite that move, was passed by the House Judiciary Committee on a 9-4 vote.
Her bill was also put on the schedule for a vote at the very end of the list of bills and almost at the end of Wednesday's session, leaving little time for any reconsideration move.
Despite the vote, she said she and supporters were still looking at any other options.
Pollert, meanwhile, said Thursday that he didn't juggle the bill voting calendar but followed the legislative process. He also said he made it clear Wednesday that any bills that legislators wanted reconsidered had to be done that day, so they knew the "clincher" was coming up.
However, Roers Jones said she didn't have enough time to get it reconsidered as it was the second to the last of the bills being reconsidered.
Besides the procedural moves, however, Pollert said he told Roers Jones from the beginning of the session that he didn't favor the bill.
He said he opposes recreational marijuana and always has, and he thought this bill was a step in that direction.
Pollert also said he was reflecting the "will of the people" who voted down a recreational marijuana measure by a 59 to 41 percent margin last November.
Roers Jones and Owen also thought the measure was not given a fair process in the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, who also voted against the bill on Wednesday.
"It was set up to fail by him," Owen said. He also brought up the point that supporters were only given 15 minutes to testify on the bill in committee and that it was one of the last bills the committee considered.
Roers Jones said she simply thought the bill wasn't given a fair process in the session.
"I understand why she's frustrated, but we treated everyone the same," he said.
The bill would have changed state law and made the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana or the possession of two marijuana plants or less a non-criminal offense punishable by a $200 fine, similar to a traffic offense. Possession of marijuana paraphernalia would have been a non-criminal offense also, with a fine of $100 if caught by law enforcement.
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 increase up to a $20,000 fine and 20 years in jail.
Judges, however, rarely dish out such punishment for small amounts of marijuana.
Roers Jones said young people caught with a small amount can have a criminal record that hurts in their chances for jobs and housing.
State Rep. Pat Heinert, the former sheriff in Burleigh County, also urged passage of the bill on Wednesday as he worked with Roers Jones and others on the bill.
He said there is a "tremendous amount" of marijuana in the state despite laws. "There's more than anyone thinks," he said.
He urged approval, but said that he didn't like the provision about the "delivery" of less than one ounce of marijuana; he said that could have been changed in the Senate.
How they voted on House 1155
YES: Adams; Beadle; Becker; Blum; Boschee; Brandenburg; Buffalo; Dobervich; Grueneich; Guggisberg; Hager; Hanson; Heinert; Holman; Johnson, C.; Johnson, M.; Jones; Kading; Kasper; Keiser; Kempenich; Koppelman, B.; Magrum; Marschall; Martinson; McWilliams; Meier; Mitskog; Mock; Nelson, J.; Nelson, M.; O'Brien; Porter; Richter; Roers Jones; Ruby, M.; Sanford; Schneider; Schobinger; Schreiber-Beck; Simons; Toman; Vetter
NO: Anderson, B.; Anderson, D.; Boe; Bosch; Damschen; Delzer; Devlin; Dockter; Ertelt; Fegley; Fisher; Hatlestad; Headland; Hoverson; Howe; Johnson, D.; Johnston; Karls; Koppelman, K.; Kreidt; Laning; Lefor; Longmuir; Louser; Monson; Nathe; Owens; Paulson; Paur; Pollert; Pyle; Rohr; Ruby, D.; Satrom; Schatz; Schauer; Schmidt; Skroch; Steiner; Strinden; Trottier; Tveit; Vigesaa; Weisz; Westlind; Zubke; Speaker Klemin