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Marijuana decriminalization bill in the works after ND legalization effort fails

The North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck. Forum News Service file photo

BISMARCK — After an effort to legalize recreational marijuana failed at the ballot box, a North Dakota lawmaker said this week she plans to introduce legislation reducing penalties for possessing a small amount of the drug.

State Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, said under the proposal, people caught with a small amount of marijuana would only pay a fine and avoid creating a criminal record. She said she’s still working out the details of the bill, adding it could apply to possession of an ounce or less of the drug.

Marijuana possession is currently a Class B misdemeanor under state law, but there are exceptions for medical use with a valid certification and card.

“We were looking for an opportunity to solve the ongoing consequences for people who get caught with a small amount of marijuana, people who then end up with a criminal record that affects their ability to find housing or jobs or get professional licensing for years into the future,” Roers Jones said.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum supports decriminalization at the state level, his spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.

The effort would come on the heels of other criminal justice reform efforts lawmakers have undertaken in recent years. During the 2017 session, the Legislature reduced penalties for first-time drug possession charges.

But Roers Jones’ bill would also come just weeks after voters easily rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana. Measure 3 did not impose limits on how much marijuana someone could possess or grow, prompting opponents to warn of a “wild West” atmosphere.

“Our Legislature and I think our citizens are not ready for full-out legalization, but they want a more moderate approach,” said Mark Friese, a criminal defense attorney in Fargo who has been working with Roers Jones on legislation.

But the proposal may not significantly alter what already happens inside courtrooms, said Aaron Birst, the executive director of the North Dakota State’s Attorneys’ Association.

“At the end of the day, the court system for the last decade on small amounts has been basically slapping people on the hands and telling them to stay out of trouble,” he said. “That’s almost every day in every court.”

Meanwhile, Roers Jones said she’s also working on a separate bill to allow people previously convicted of a crime to seal their court record if they’ve stayed out of trouble for several years. It would only apply to non-violent, non-sexual offenses and wouldn’t affect federal charges.

Unlike the expungement provision included in Measure 3, Roers Jones said her proposal would require people to take a proactive step to request their record be sealed. She said the proposal wouldn’t be exclusive to drug crimes.

Roers Jones cited the workforce implications of her proposals, noting that there are thousands of open jobs across the state that government and business leaders have been trying to fill.

“We have people who want to work and who are probably qualified to work, but they can’t get the job because of these old things showing up on their criminal record,” she said.

Birst said he understands the intent of sealing court records, but he said it couldn’t make all traces of the crime disappear thanks in part to Google and online news archives. He said the idea opens up a larger policy debate about whether people should know if a day care provider or politician has a criminal history.

Dave Owen, who led the marijuana legalization charge this year, said he’s on board with Roers Jones’ proposals even as he plans for another legalization measure in 2020.

“Never stop progress because it doesn’t go far enough,” he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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