BISMARCK — The North Dakota Senate overwhelmingly killed a bill to legalize recreational marijuana use in the state last week, but the issue may not be settled just yet.

The upper chamber's Delayed Bills Committee voted on Tuesday, March 30, to move forward a resolution to put pot legalization on the ballot in 2022. The proposal will still have to make it through the Senate and House before landing on the ballot. If voters eventually pass the measure, the Legislature would be constitutionally compelled to create the framework of an adult-use pot program.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said many lawmakers fear that "a loud minority" of North Dakota voters will approve a citizen-initiated ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana next year. Two pot advocacy organizations have stated their intentions to gather signatures and put measures on the ballot in 2022, including one that aims to cement legal cannabis in the state Constitution.

By putting a more conservative option for legalization on the ballot, the Republican-dominated Legislature would hope to avoid a voter-approved legalization plan that allows for homegrown pot plants and higher possession limits. The Legislature's resolution could allow lawmakers to build a pot program that mirrors one outlined in the 50-page bill that died in the Senate, Wardner said. That plan would have made it legal for adults 21 and over to buy and possess marijuana products in limited quantities and use them on private property.

"Sometimes the best defense is when you go on offense," said Wardner, a former football coach. "If it's voted down — yes, I like it. I don't want (recreational marijuana), but I'm not going to let the other two options be out there all by themselves."

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Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 1, 2020, in the North Dakota Capitol. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 1, 2020, in the North Dakota Capitol. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Wardner said he's a supporter of passing the resolution, sponsored by Bismarck Republican Sen. Dick Dever, noting that the legislation would likely have more support in the Senate than the bill to legalize pot because it gives voters the choice.

Dever, who also opposes marijuana use, said he would "never in a million years have guessed" that he'd be the sponsor of a resolution to legalize pot, but he thinks the public should have an up-or-down vote on the issue. He said he'd prefer to put it on the November general election ballot so more voters weigh in, but he acknowledged it would be best to put it on the spring primary ballot to rival the citizen-initiated constitutional measure.

Dave Owen, chairman of pro-pot group Legalize ND, slammed the resolution as a deeply flawed and disingenuous effort by lawmakers who have no intention of ever legalizing recreational pot.

Owen, whose organization plans to get a legalization measure on the ballot next year, said Dever's proposal fails to specify a timeline for establishing a pot program, an adult age at which pot would be legal or the allowance of dispensaries to sell the drug. As written, the resolution would allow the Legislature to legalize pot in 1,000 years only for people 99 and over, Owen argued, saying he hopes the Legislature will kill Dever's resolution unless it includes a provision to give shape to the program.

Even in the committee meeting Tuesday, lawmakers raised doubts about convincing voters the Legislature is making a sincere proposal to legalize pot.

"How are we going to get folks to vote for this, say we put it on the ballot, given that in the last week, we just proved that the Legislature doesn't have any appetite to deal with marijuana as it is?" asked Sen. Scott Meyer, a Grand Forks Republican who supported the legalization bill but voted against moving the resolution forward.

North Dakota lawmakers, generally known to be socially conservative, came closer to legalizing pot through the legislative process than many observers anticipated. Republican legislators who backed the legalization bill but disapprove of marijuana use said they needed to be proactive to preempt a problematic voter-approved legal pot program that the Legislature couldn't adjust.

The push to legalize the drug came several months after voters in neighboring South Dakota and Montana passed citizen-initiated ballot measures, leading North Dakota lawmakers to believe it could happen in the Peace Garden State next. However, the last time voters in the state got their say on the issue in 2018, the measure failed by a near 20-point margin.

Reporter Adam Willis contributed to this report.