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North Dakota group looks to put pot legalization measure on November ballot

The proposal would legalize the possession and purchase of small amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and up. The measure would also implement policies to regulate retail marijuana stores and growers.

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A proposed ballot measure would legalize the possession and purchase of small amounts of marijuana for North Dakota adults 21 and up.
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BISMARCK — A diverse group of North Dakotans is making a late push to place a question about legalizing recreational marijuana on the November ballot in the Peace Garden State.

A 25-member sponsoring committee, chaired by pro-legalization activist Dave Owen, submitted a petition to Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Monday, April 11, detailing a proposal for legalizing the possession and purchase of small amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and up.

The statutory measure would also implement policies to regulate retail marijuana stores and growers. Cannabis products would have to be tested for contaminants, labeled and tracked through a "seed-to-sale inventory system." Driving under the influence and using marijuana products in public would still be prohibited. If passed, the measure would direct regulators to establish rules and create the legal pot program by October 2023.

If Jaeger approves the petition for circulation later this month, the group would need to gather 15,582 signatures from North Dakota residents by July 11 to put the question on the ballot in November. (Legally, the group would have a year to gather the signatures, but if it turns in the required signatures after July 11, the measure would go on the ballot in 2024.)

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

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Minot Republican Rep. Matthew Ruby, a supporter of last year's bill, said he's on the sponsoring committee for the legalization initiative because it will create jobs and remove barriers for North Dakota veterans and other residents with health issues to access cannabis products for therapeutic purposes.

Mark Friese, a Fargo criminal defense lawyer and former police officer, said he's backing the measure because “North Dakota’s policy of punishing adults who use cannabis is the wrong approach."

"No one’s life should be derailed over a small amount of marijuana," Friese said in a news release. "As an attorney and former member of law enforcement, I’ve seen how keeping cannabis illegal drains resources from our police departments and clogs our courts."

The sponsoring committee also includes Fargo City Commissioner John Strand and Bismarck political consultant Dustin Gawrylow, director of the North Dakota Watchdog Network and a candidate for Burleigh County Commission.

North Dakota voters approved the legalization of medical marijuana in 2016 against the wishes of many Republican state lawmakers, but voters later rejected a recreational legalization measure led by Owen in 2018. Owen's group suspended an effort to get the question on the 2020 ballot amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recreational pot is now legal in 18 states, including Montana, where voters elected to legalize the drug in 2020. A v oter-approved legalization measure in South Dakota was deemed unconstitutional last year by the state's Supreme Court.

The latest initiative in North Dakota is supported by the Marijuana Policy Project, which has aided campaigns to legalize recreational pot in other states. Owen declined to disclose details of how the campaign will be funded.

The campaign will be hiring full-time and part-time petition signature-gatherers to help meet the tight deadline, according to the news release.

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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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