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Bill to lessen ND pot penalties sparked by concern about impact of youthful convictions

BISMARCK - North Dakota lawmakers heard testimony this week on a bill that, if passed, would decrease the severity of marijuana possession offenses, particularly for first-time offenders.

BISMARCK – North Dakota lawmakers heard testimony this week on a bill that, if passed, would decrease the severity of marijuana possession offenses, particularly for first-time offenders.

The North Dakota State House Judiciary Committee took up House Bill 1394 on Wednesday morning.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks, would downgrade the severity of the offense level involving less than an ounce of marijuana. It also would reduce the severity of driving with less than an ounce of marijuana to the same level of penalty applied to driving under the influence of alcohol.

In her remarks, Delmore pointed out that many respected individuals – presidents, artists, lawyers and doctors – smoked marijuana in their youth but went on to accomplish great things. She said a conviction for possessing even a small amount of marijuana, what she called a “youthful indiscretion,” could forever close doors to a young person.

Delmore said she didn’t believe it was the right time to legalize marijuana in North Dakota, but it was time to reduce the stigma directed at those convicted for possessing it.

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Her comments touched off a brief discussion by committee members, some of whom disclosed that they, too, had smoked marijuana in their youth.

“You want to ask for a show of hands?” West Fargo Republican and committee chairman Rep. Kim Koppelman joked.

Committee member Rep. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, said that one of the most dismaying things about her time as a youth worker with the Bismarck Police Department was juveniles who didn’t take marijuana seriously.

“My concern is we are perpetuating the myth that there is nothing wrong with marijuana,” Larson said.

Delmore said her bill does not excuse marijuana use, but it gives young people a second chance when they make a mistake.

“I think we’ve finally decided we don’t need to send people to prison for everything,” Delmore said.

Bruce Burkett, speaking on behalf of the North Dakota Peace Officers Association, said he opposed reducing possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana to an infraction-level offense, which would remove a judge’s sentencing discretion, including the ability to require treatment or probation.

Burkett said a youthful marijuana conviction does not necessarily prevent a person from achieving ambitions, but, in cases where it does, actions should have consequences.

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“Life practices do limit what you can do,” he said.

Delmore said if judges and prosecutors always showed leniency to young people caught in possession of marijuana, “this bill might not be necessary.”

Delmore and Burkett were the only two people to speak to the bill. The committee accepted the testimony and closed the hearing without taking further action.

Related Topics: CRIME
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