North Dakota legislative effort to reduce marijuana penalties expected to have little impact
BISMARCK — A North Dakota bill reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana is not expected to significantly alter judicial practices or blunt legalization efforts.
Under a bill approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature but still awaiting Gov. Doug Burgum's approval, people caught with less than a half-ounce of marijuana would face an infraction, which carries a maximum fine of $1,000. Marijuana possession is currently a Class B misdemeanor with maximum penalties of 30 days in prison and a $1,500 fine.
David Owen, the leader of a group that unsuccessfully pushed a legalization ballot campaign last year, said Tuesday, April 30, they're planning to start collecting signatures later this year for a November 2020 measure that will include more regulations, such as possession limits. He said lawmakers fell well short of decriminalization because an infraction still creates a criminal record.
"It shows that once again when it comes to marijuana, the Legislature is not willing to have a serious conversation," Owen said.
Possession of more than 500 grams, or just over a pound, of marijuana would go to a Class A misdemeanor under the bill.
Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State's Attorneys' Association, expected House Bill 1050 to have few on-the-ground effects. He said prosecutors have "very seldom ever maxed out someone for a marijuana charge because society doesn't expect that."
"The legislation, although technically changed the level of offenses, it just brings it in line with what the current practice in the courts were," Birst said.
As of late last year, 22 states and the District of Columbia had decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, including Minnesota, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A previous version of the North Dakota bill would have imposed a noncriminal fine of $250 for possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana. The Senate approved that version with some lawmakers warning another legalization measure was on the horizon, but the bill was later scaled back in a House-Senate conference committee.
Sen. Michael Dwyer, a Bismarck Republican who was a member of that panel, said lawmakers were wary of inching too close to legalization. He said lawmakers shouldn't "legislate based on what somebody might do with a measure."
"That just doesn't seem like a very good way to legislate," Dwyer said.
Fargo Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, a Republican who championed decriminalization efforts during this year's session, worried that lawmakers didn't do enough to deter a legalization push. She said a measure with more regulations than last year's wide-open Measure 3 would have a better chance at the ballot box.
Roers Jones successfully pushed separate legislation allowing offenders to petition to have certain criminal records sealed if they stay out of trouble for several years, though she said the bill wasn't a response to Measure 3's provisions calling for marijuana records to be automatically erased. Owen said the new measure won't include expungement.
The marijuana penalties bill lawmakers approved asks for an interim legislative study on the implications for a ballot measure allowing for recreational marijuana. A legislative panel is scheduled to pick topics to study in late May.