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North Dakota pot legalization measure goes up in smoke

About 55% of voters shot down the measure, which represented the second attempt in four years to legalize pot through the ballot box.

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David Owen, chairperson of New Approach North Dakota, the group behind the Measure 2 initiative, takes a call outside of Dempsey's in downtown Fargo on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum
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BISMARCK — North Dakota voters rejected a measure to legalize recreational marijuana on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

In complete but unofficial results, 55% of voters rejected Measure 2, while 45% approved it. All statewide election results in North Dakota must be certified by the state Canvassing Board later this month before becoming official.

Anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana declared the measure had failed Tuesday night before the result was cemented. Similar measures were defeated in Arkansas and South Dakota on Tuesday, though Missouri and Maryland voters approved legalization.

"The results of tonight's election are a huge win for public health, science, and common sense,” said Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Fargo addiction counselor Kristie Spooner, who campaigned against Measure 2, said North Dakotans stood up for what's right to defeat a concept that would have harmed residents.

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Measure 2 committee chairman Dave Owen did not concede his group had lost Tuesday, but he recognized a favorable result was likely out of reach.

Owen, a Grand Forks political consultant, said this was "a bad year for marijuana," noting that voter turnout was low and measures failed in other states. He said the future of the legalization movement in the state is uncertain.

The measure would have legalized the possession and purchase of small amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older. The 19-page statutory measure would have also allowed adult residents to grow limited amounts of cannabis at home.

The language of the measure closely mirrored a 2021 bill that passed the North Dakota House of Representatives but failed in the state Senate.

Voters in the state approved the legalization of medical marijuana in 2016 but rejected a recreational legalization measure in 2018 by a 3-2 margin.

Measure 2 proponents said legalization would mark a meaningful criminal justice reform and provide local and state governments with tax revenue they couldn’t realize under pot prohibition.

State officials refused to estimate how much tax revenue legalization would generate, but Owen’s group believes it would have come in upwards of $8 million a year.

The group behind Measure 2 received close to $600,000 in donations this election cycle, mostly from national pro-legalization groups and the operators of various dispensaries. Much of that money was spent gathering signatures over the summer.

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A number of interest groups representing police, doctors and farmers came out against the measure, saying legalization would negatively impact health and public safety.

Hettinger County Sheriff Sarah Warner said legalization would cause more impaired driving and pose health risks to children, who could mistake marijuana edibles for candy.

The North Dakota Medical Association, a doctors’ trade group, said pot is associated with mental health issues and legalizing an addictive drug is counterintuitive when substance abuse is already out of hand.

Brighter Future Alliance, a nonprofit campaign finance group that does not disclose its donors, spent more than $135,000 on advertising to oppose Measure 2. Pat Finken, the former CEO of Bismarck-based advertising firm Odney, chairs the group.

North Dakota is mostly surrounded by states and Canadian provinces where recreational marijuana is fully or partially legal.

Canada legalized the drug nationwide in 2018, Montana voters passed a legalization measure 2020 and Minnesota lawmakers approved the legalization of edible pot products earlier this year.

Voters in South Dakota rejected legalization Tuesday by slightly narrower margin than in North Dakota.

Recreational pot is already legal in 19 states , and the issue will appear on midterm ballots in three states besides the Dakotas.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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