Preparing for pot: North Dakota lawmakers to examine implications of marijuana legalization

Jody Vetter of Bismarck, who is leading a campaign to legalize marijuana through a constitutional amendments, stands in front of the state North Dakota Capitol Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers who have been reluctant to examine legalized marijuana will begin considering the consequences of voters approving it at the ballot box Wednesday, Sept. 25.

The interim Judiciary Committee meeting at the state Capitol will feature presentations from leaders of two separate ballot measure campaigns, as well as a top law enforcement official, the state’s top medical marijuana regulator and an official from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

David Owen, the leader of last year’s failed legalization initiative who’s preparing for another run in 2020, said he’s seeking to address lawmakers’ concerns about marijuana but expressed cynicism about the process. He predicted anti-marijuana groups will use the Republican-controlled Legislature’s study to raise money and “lie to people.”

“Do I realistically think (lawmakers are) going to take this with an unbiased and fair account? Quite frankly, no I don’t,” Owen said.

Lawmakers required that the study consider the “potential benefits and detriments of legalizing recreational marijuana” with respect to the state’s economy, public health, legal system, existing medical marijuana program and other factors.


The committee will complete its report in September 2020, said its chairman, Bismarck Republican Rep. Lawrence Klemin. He predicted marijuana would come up at multiple meetings before then.

Fargo Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said some lawmakers are “hesitant” to examine policies surrounding marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level but has been approved by 11 states and the District of Columbia. The Legislature rejected a bill backed by Democratic lawmakers in 2017 asking for a study on marijuana legalization.

Roers Jones opposes legalization but championed decriminalization efforts during this year's session. She said voters are more likely to approve the drug’s use if measure backers push a “more refined” proposal.

“Whether or not it passes, we need to look at what’s happening in other states so we are prepared to deal with it if it does,” Roers Jones said.

Lawmakers are likely to consider the potential revenue they could generate by taxing a newly legalized product. But a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found it can be hard to predict how much money marijuana will bring to state coffers, in part because of a lack of historical data.

North Dakota tax officials said last year it was “unknown” how much revenue could be raised from that failed measure.

“There are a lot of factors that need to be assumed before we’d even start to put a number on it,” North Dakota State Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger, a Republican, said.

Still, marijuana has brought millions of dollars to states that have legalized it. Alaska, which is home to about as many people as North Dakota, generated $11 million in 2018, Rauschenberger said.


Also unclear is how much legalizing marijuana could cost state and local governments. A fiscal note approved by lawmakers pegged the total “known” costs of last year's measure at $6.6 million.

Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Virginia-based nonprofit that opposed North Dakota's legalization measure, said the costs of legalized marijuana outweigh the benefits. He hoped the Legislature's study will highlight those societal ills.

"If any of them are on the fence about it, I think they're going to be convinced even more it's a bad idea," he said.

Still, recent history suggests voters may not feel the same way as the lawmakers who represent them.

Fargo Democratic Rep. Pam Anderson unsuccessfully pushed a medical marijuana bill in 2015 despite warning that North Dakotans would take it to the ballot. When voters approved a medical marijuana measure the following year, the Legislature was caught by surprise, she said.

Legislators rewrote the law in 2017 to fix what they described as significant problems with the language voters approved.

The state has since issued more than 1,200 registry cards to patients and caregivers, according to Jason Wahl, the state's top medical marijuana regulator. He expects to have dispensaries opened in each of the state's eight regions by the end of the year.

Anderson welcomed the legislative study of recreational marijuana to make sure the state is prepared for its potential legalization. But she said some lawmakers are underestimating the chances it will pass, given lingering frustrations over access to the medical product.


Owen said his group is finalizing some tweaks in its measure’s language before seeking signatures. While his measure seeks a change in a state law, another group has gathered a few thousand signatures for a proposed constitutional change allowing for recreational marijuana.

Jody Vetter of Bismarck, the lead backer of the proposed constitutional amendment, is scheduled to speak to lawmakers during the Wednesday meeting. She said her group was seeking to change the state’s constitution to keep recreational marijuana out of the hands of lawmakers who have opposed its legalization.

“There are a lot of legislators who are completely against any thought of legalization,” Vetter said. “It’s just a matter of changing minds, changing attitudes. I don’t know whether that can be done with our legislators.”

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