Recreational marijuana backers can gather signatures for North Dakota ballot initiative

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota ballot initiative group can gather signatures to put a proposal legalizing recreational marijuana to a statewide vote in the fall, the state’s top election official said Thursday, in the latest legalization effort in the conservative state.

The New Economic Frontier needs to submit 15,582 valid signatures to Secretary of State Michael Howe by July 8 to make the November general election ballot. Otherwise, the group has one year to gather enough signatures to make the next statewide election.

The 20-page statutory measure would legalize recreational marijuana for people 21 and older to use at their homes and, if permitted, on others' private property. The measure also outlines numerous production and processing regulations, prohibited uses — such as in public or in vehicles — and home cultivation of plants.

Leading the initiative is Steve Bakken, a Burleigh County commissioner and former Bismarck mayor who said he has never smoked marijuana and never will. He said law enforcement resources “should be directed someplace a little more effectual,” such as combating fentanyl and other illicit drugs. He said the group also wants to head off the potential of a poorly crafted initiative.

“If we don't do something now, we're going to wind up getting something that is untenable to work with,” Bakken said, adding that he expects the group can gather enough signatures by the July deadline.

Criminal defense attorney Mark Friese, a former Bismarck police officer, also is among the measure's backers. He said North Dakota is poised to become an island as neighboring states and Canada have legalized marijuana or have similar efforts. Law enforcement resources also are “a big part,” Friese said.

“We spend too many resources, we spend too much money, we criminalize behavior that's more benign than alcohol consumption, and we have a mental health and true drug crisis going on in our communities, and we're diverting law enforcement resources away from methamphetamine and fentanyl to make marijuana arrests," Friese said. "It's just illogical."

The measure would set maximum purchase and possession amounts of 1 ounce of dried leaves or flowers, 4 grams of a cannabinoid concentrate, 1,500 mg of total THC in the form of a cannabis product and 300 mg of an edible product. The measure would allow cannabis solutions, capsules, transdermal patches, concentrates, topical and edible products.

Marijuana use by people under 21 is a low-level misdemeanor in the state. Recreational use by anyone older is not a crime. Possession penalties vary from an infraction to differing misdemeanors depending on the amount of marijuana. Delivery of any amount of marijuana is a felony, which can be elevated depending on certain factors, such as if the offense was within 300 feet (91 meters) of a school.

In 2023, 4,451 people statewide were charged with ingestion or possession of marijuana, according to North Dakota Courts data requested by The Associated Press.

North Dakota voters rejected previous legalization measures in 2018 and 2022. In 2021, the Republican-led state House of Representatives passed bills to legalize and tax recreational marijuana, which the GOP-majority Senate defeated.

Republican Sen. Janne Myrdal said she is “firmly against” legalizing recreational marijuana, saying, “I just don't believe in illicit drugs being legalized.

“It's kind of like, what else are we going to start legalizing?" Myrdal said. "Other nations have gone and legalized all kinds of wrongdoings and things that are negative for young people, negative for the human body at large, and I just think we're going in the wrong direction of saying, ‘Oh, well, people are going to do it anyway, so let’s just legalize it.' That's a faulty argument to me."

North Dakota voters approved of medical marijuana in 2016. The state-administered program has nearly 10,000 active patient cards.

In 2019, the state's Pardon Advisory Board approved a new process to ease pardons for low-level marijuana offenses, through which Republican Gov. Doug Burgum has granted 100 pardons, according to his office.

Twenty-four states have legalized marijuana for adults, most recently in Ohio by initiative in November, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Other legalization efforts are underway in other states. Florida voters will decide a ballot initiative in November. Signature-gathering efforts for similar measures are active in states such as Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, according to NORML.