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ND bill lowers charges for drug paraphernalia

Marijuana users caught with a pot pipe will take a lesser hit in North Dakota's court system under legislation headed to the governor's desk.

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FILE – A man smokes marijuana from a pipe. REUTERS / Mark Leffingwell

BISMARCK - Marijuana users caught with a pot pipe will take a lesser hit in North Dakota's court system under legislation headed to the governor's desk.

House and Senate lawmakers voted Tuesday to lower the penalties for possession of drug paraphernalia in an effort to make the marijuana paraphernalia charge the same as for marijuana possession, to give prosecutors more discretion in prosecuting first-time offenders and to streamline the court process.

Under current law, possession of drug paraphernalia is a Class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, regardless of whether it's used for manufacturing and preparing drugs or for ingesting, injecting or inhaling drugs.

The lone exception is for possession of marijuana paraphernalia, which is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Senate Bill 2030 reduces the first-offense charge to a Class A misdemeanor for possession of paraphernalia that's used for ingesting drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine. Repeat offenders would still face a felony charge.

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"If you're a chronic offender ... it didn't seem right to have that lower consequence," said Rep. Kris Wallman, D-Fargo, who served on the House-Senate conference committee that kicked out the bill accepted by both chambers Tuesday.

Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State's Attorneys Association, said the group opposed lowering the personal-use paraphernalia charge from a felony to a misdemeanor.

"If someone has reached the level of using needles to inject themselves, you want to be able to put them on probation for a longer period of time than a Class A misdemeanor allows," he said.

However, Birst said the overall bill is "a good compromise."

The association supported the bill's provision that drops possession of marijuana paraphernalia such as pipes and bongs to a Class B misdemeanor, which is the same charge for marijuana possession and carries up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, who sits on the Legislature's Commission on Alternatives to Incarceration that proposed the changes, said it didn't make sense for possession of marijuana paraphernalia to carry a more severe penalty than possession of the drug itself.

Possession of marijuana paraphernalia used for manufacturing or distribution, such as a drug scale, will still be a Class A misdemeanor.

Armstrong said lowering the felony paraphernalia charge to a misdemeanor for first-time offenders will give prosecutors a negotiating tool when the defendant is also charged with felony drug possession. It also will give defendants the opportunity to keep a felony off their record by pleading down to the lesser charge.

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The bill also solves the problem of combination marijuana possession/paraphernalia cases being split between municipal court and district court in larger cities that have both, which is a drag on the courts and can result in defendants being appointed two different public defenders, Armstrong said.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple still must sign the bill. The changes in law would take effect Aug. 1.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com .

Related Topics: CRIME
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