BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Caught off guard by North Dakota voters' surprise support five years ago for allowing medical marijuana, lawmakers now are developing rules to legalize the drug for recreational use as well — with heavy restrictions.
Backers of the legislation say recent votes to legalize marijuana in neighboring Montana and South Dakota mean it's nearly inevitable that it'll eventually happen in North Dakota, so they want to be ready with rules to control — and tax — it.
Hurdsfield Republican Rep. Robin Weisz said Thursday that North Dakota is likely faced with a losing fight to keep legal marijuana out of the state.
“It’s only a matter of time before it’s going to come here and we want to make sure we do it on our own terms,” said Weisz, who heads the Human Services Committee.
The panel on Wednesday narrowly approved an amended bill allowing for “adult use” marijuana to be available at already established medicinal pot dispensaries. With the added amendments, the bill swelled from nine to 48 pages and now mirrors existing regulations for medical marijuana use except that small amounts may be purchased twice-monthly by those 21 and over.
The bill is expected to be considered next week in the full Republican-led House, where Bismarck GOP Rep. Jason Dockter, the legislation’s prime sponsor, said it has a chance of passing, despite overwhelming opposition by lawmakers like himself who are personally opposed to pot.
A separate bill is still being crafted to set a tax on the recreational marijuana.
North Dakota voters approved medical marijuana in 2016, and the Legislature the following year crafted regulations for the drug’s use for people who suffer from one of several debilitating illnesses. The so-called North Dakota Compassionate Care Act won 65 percent voter approval — a margin even the measure’s backers said was surprising in highly conservative state.
A year before voters approved it, people suffering chronic pain and parents of critically ill children made emotional pleas to approve a bill to legalize medicinal marijuana products. But lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected the measure, citing concerns about public safety and the burden on law enforcement.
Backers at the time warned that defeating the bill would spur a citizen initiative that would force lawmakers to scramble to react.
Weisz, who led opposition to the bill at the time, now says they were right and it was a lesson learned.
North Dakota voters in in 2018 soundly rejected a marijuana legalization initiative that also included a provision that would wipe out past pot-related convictions. They counted on a shoe-leather campaign to build support, raising little money for their effort and getting only token help from national legalization groups.
That was followed by a pair of proposed citizen-led initiatives that aimed to make the drug legal for recreational use, though both groups failed to get the needed signatures to get them on the 2020 ballot.
Supporters of amending North Dakota’s constitution to legalize recreational marijuana have come forward again with an identical proposal for 2022 that allows residents to grow pot for personal uses.
Group chairwoman Jody Vetter, of Bismarck, said she “applauds” the Legislature for moving toward legalizing recreational marijuana but that the rules are too restrictive.
“It will not stop our effort,” she said Thursday.
The House bill, she said, is “heavily, heavily regulated” and raises privacy concerns because buyers’ names will be kept in a database.
“The rules are troubling,” she said. “People just aren’t going to participate. They will continue to bring it in from other states or continue growing their own illegally.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures said 15 states have laws allowing recreational marijuana. But it is still illegal at the federal level and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved it.
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