FARGO — With Montana and South Dakota approving recreational marijuana ballot measures earlier this month and Minnesota's governor and most Democrats in favor, North Dakota could in a year or so be surrounded by marijuana retail stores.
To the north is Canada, which legalized marijuana nationally.
"I think it shows that it's not a left-wing or right-wing issue, it's a commonsense issue," said David Owen, who led the unsuccessful attempt in 2018 to legalize recreational marijuana in North Dakota as chairman of Legalize ND.
"People support legalization when they become fully informed," he said.
Owen said there could possibly be moves in the North Dakota Legislature's next session that starts in January to at least fully decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana.
If not, he said the troops of supporters will likely try to gather enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot again in 2022. In 2018, after a heated campaign, the measure failed by a 59% to 41% margin.
It likely would have been on the ballot this year, but Owen said because of the coronavirus pandemic and limited crowds and interactions, they didn't even try to collect the signatures needed.
"There just weren't any big events where we could gather the signatures," he said.
As for the Legislature, Republican state Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, who was recently reelected to a second term in her south Fargo district, said she has just begun some discussions with her colleagues about any possible bills concerning the issue in the upcoming session.
Roers Jones said she or possibly someone else may offer some type of bill on marijuana laws.
"I don't know for sure what the people want," she said.
She was a leader on a bill passed in the 2019 session that took effect last August reducing penalties from a misdemeanor to an "infraction" for possessing a half-ounce or less of marijuana. The infraction, the lowest criminal penalty in the state, carries the possibility of a fine but eliminates the possibility of jail time. However, fines and the level of crime increase — and jail time is still possible — for possession of larger amounts.
Owen and defense attorney Mark Friese, of Fargo, who both don't smoke marijuana, said the infraction law still puts possession of a small amount of marijuana on a person's criminal record.
Although many national websites have North Dakota listed as having decriminalized smaller amounts of possession, they said what took effect last year hasn't done that.
Friese said municipal courts are also still fining people fairly large amounts of up to $500 for small-possession convictions, while district courts are levying only $100 or $200. The law allows fines of up to $1,000.
Friese said he's also bothered that law enforcement officers are still searching cars, running drug dogs through apartment buildings and giving tickets to college students who then have to live with a criminal mark on their record for the rest of their lives.
Owen has argued that the major reasons he supports legalization is to prevent problems with housing and job searches for younger residents.
Despite those arguments, there is still opposition to legalization from business groups and health organizations.
Leading the opposition in South Dakota were the Chamber of Commerce, which ran numerous television ads, and health care organizations such as the Avera health care system. In all, though, they only raised about $110,000, a small fraction compared to the $1.57 million gathered by pro-legalization forces.
In North Dakota, the Chamber of Commerce and many businesses also opposed legalization two years ago and likely will again in the 2021 legislative session and 2022 election.
Matt Gardner, government affairs director for the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, is well aware of what happened in neighboring states and was surprised by the margins. He said it is likely that the Chamber and business community would oppose a possible ballot measure again in 2022.
As far as marijuana coming up in the Legislature this coming year, he said COVID-19 is "sucking the air" out of many issues that otherwise might have a chance to be on the agenda.
Gardner pointed to the large amount of out-of-state money that came in for the South Dakota marijuana he said that would be a "pretty big issue" to have that happen here.
Owen definitely said it helped aid the South Dakota vote, which also included passage of a separate initiated ballot measure approving a medical marijuana program. The largest chunk came from a political action committee called New Approach that provided $1.42 million or almost all of the $1.57 million in campaign funds.
Owen said in the last election Legalize ND tried to win approval with only about $80,000.
The South Dakota constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, which is still facing a court challenge, passed by a 54% to 45% margin and allows residents 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. Residents not residing within a reasonable distance of a licensed retail store can grow up to three plants in a locked space and possess six. The tax rate will be 15%, with 50% going to schools and the rest to the general fund.
South Dakota voters passed the medical marijuana measure by an even larger 70% to 30% margin, which was more than when North Dakota in 2016 passed its medical marijuana law by a 63% to 39% margin.
North Dakota's medical marijuana program was slowly rolled out and has enrolled about 4,174 residents with cards who can use dispensaries in bigger cities across the state. There are now 35 states nationwide with medical marijuana laws.
With the passage of recreational use in four states earlier this month, 15 American states now have or will soon have retail businesses selling marijuana.
North Dakota's neighbor to the west, Montana, approved recreational marijuana by an even wider margin than South Dakota at 56% to 43%. Their new law legalizes possession of up to 1 ounce with a 20% tax on sales and allows residents to grow up to four plants in a home. It also requires resentencing or expungement of certain marijuana-related crimes.
In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz and Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have urged support for recreational marijuana sales that would be regulated and taxed, although the Republican-controlled Senate hasn't in the past seemed interested in going along.
Democrats have also mentioned concerns they have heard about the state's expensive and difficult-to-navigate medical marijuana program.
Newly reelected state Rep. Paul Marquardt, D-Dilworth, said he doesn't know if it'll be on this year's legislative agenda, but said he's opposed and would vote against legalization.
"As a teacher, I'm concerned about the impact on youth," he said, adding that enforcement has expressed concerns to him about driving under the influence and other possible issues.
State Rep.-elect Heather Keeler, D-Moorhead, said she needs to continue conversations with the community, but her sense is that locals are supportive of the recreational use measure, especially because it could be taxed and provide a revenue source as the state is entering difficult financial times.
She said the medical piece to the marijuana issue is "really important," but she said they are a "lot of layers to the issue and it's something I'll be learning more about."