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Court rejects effort to put medical pot back on ballot

FARGO -- A court challenge to put medical marijuana to a vote failed Wednesday when the North Dakota Supreme Court rejected the case.

The court's denial means elections officials around the state can go ahead and print an estimated 400,000 to 450,000 ballots for the Nov. 6 election as scheduled.

The issue of whether the ballots could be printed in time for absentee and military voters arose when proponents of medical marijuana sued in an effort to put the issue back on the ballot.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger rejected petitions to place the issue before voters when he determined last month that many signatures were forged or fraudulent.

None of 15 circulators who are charged with fraud -- including 10 current and three former North Dakota State University football players -- would attest that the petitions contained valid signatures, Jaeger said.

"I'm happy," he said after learning of the court's decision. "It was very welcome news because we can proceed."

Because of pressing deadlines, 45 of 53 counties in the state had proofed their ballots in preparation for printing and distributing them for the upcoming election, he said.

Cass County was among the counties that was proceeding with ballots, despite the legal challenge, said Mike Mountplaisir, Cass County auditor.

"We gave the order to print ballots," he said.

Jaeger said his office had advised counties to keep going with ballot preparations, given the looming deadline.

"Nobody ever stopped what they were doing," he said. "We have short timelines."

Given the urgent timeline - ballots must be ready by Friday - the Supreme Court issued its order without hearing oral arguments.

Both sides filed written arguments for and against the petition, filed Friday by proponents of legalizing medical marijuana.

Steve Zaiser, a state legislator from Fargo and chairman of the group pushing for medical marijuana, said the decision is a blow for people, including chronic pain sufferers, who could benefit from legalization.

"Now they're not even going to have a chance for North Dakotans to say 'yea' or 'nay' on this issue, and it really saddens me," said Zaiser, who said he suffers from chronic pain.

Zaiser said he is unlikely to lead another statewide ballot drive to bring the issue before voters in two years but hopes someone else will carry the banner.

"It's really a major, major effort," Zaiser said. "This boy is done trying."

A key question in the case turned on whether Jaeger acted properly in rejecting entire petitions once fraudulent signatures were found. He said many petitions appeared entirely bogus, and the law clearly holds that petition circulators are responsible for vouching, in sworn statements, for their authenticity.

Once the court issues its written decision, it likely will help North Dakota election officials when dealing with questions involving fraudulent petition signatures in the future, Jaeger said.

"It'll provide a tremendous amount of direction to us in reviewing future petitions," Jaeger said.