Conservative North Dakota Might Be the Next State to Legalize Cannabis


Voters in North Dakota will join those in Michigan this November to decide on a legalization ballot question.

If passed, the initiative would legalize adult-use cannabis and, for many offenders, automatically expunge past cannabis-related convictions.

Organizers for the effort submitted 1,587 more signatures than the required 13,542 signatures to put the proposed new law on the November ballot, according to a letter obtained by Cannabis Wire from the Secretary of State’s office and sent to lead Legalize ND organizer David Owen on Monday.

North Dakota is a largely rural, agricultural state where President Donald Trump won all but two counties and 63 percent of the vote. Still, a few months ago, a grassroots campaign in Oklahoma proved that voters in a solidly conservative state would embrace legalizing cannabis for at least medical purposes in the face of organized opposition.

Now, ballot initiative organizers in North Dakota hope that voters will support their grassroots campaign for widespread adult-use legalization in a similarly conservative state.

(It’s also worth noting that advocates in both North Dakota and Oklahoma have moved exceptionally fast between medical and recreational efforts — between just weeks in Oklahoma and under two years in North Dakota — considering nearly every state to legalize cannabis had more than a decade between the two.)

Owen, a 25-year-old University of North Dakota student and lead organizer for Legalize ND, told Cannabis Wire that the campaign inherited a solid grassroots network after the state’s successful 2016 medical cannabis initiative and many embraced the new push. Legalize ND sought to craft the new proposed adult-use law around concerns specific to those in North Dakota and not from outside groups, Owen said. That wide-reaching network and approach leaves him hopeful voters will support the initiative in November.

“I just think it’s going to be educating and continuing to talk about it,” Owen said, of potential hurdles. “People still believe marijuana is a gateway drug because that came from people who they trust. It’s just not the case. You’ve got to talk about DUI law, you’ve got to explain to them, ‘we’ve got the strictest law in the nation when it comes to marijuana and DUI.’ You’ve got to address people where they are.”

In crafting the measure, Owen said the group of around 100 volunteers was careful to stress a free-market approach — the measure notably calls for no special regulations or licensing procedures around cannabis shops, simply a business license application — and criminal justice issues. Owen said he hopes farmers in rural communities long frustrated with dropping wheat and corn prices will embrace what could be a lucrative new crop.

Legalize ND, which Owen said has raised around $8,000 for electioneering efforts, commissioned a poll recently that showed 46 percent of voters were inclined to support recreational cannabis, with 39 percent disapproving and 15 percent still undecided. He said there has been no organized opposition — yet. He expects law enforcement groups and pharmaceutical companies and others to oppose the initiative.

That list will likely include many of the state’s Republican leaders. In an interview with Cannabis Wire, North Dakota’s Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner balked at the idea of widespread use of recreational marijuana.

“Our society is going to go down, I don’t care what anybody says,” Wardner said, adding that, in nearby Colorado, people “can’t get a job because they’re on pot.” Wardner added, “Medical marijuana passed because we’ve got people with medical conditions that have medical conditions and need it — that’s fine. The other thing is it’s controlled to get to the people that need it.”

Even though Wardner said he was proud that the legislature passed a bipartisan measure on medical cannabis, the state was seen as reacting to the issue too slowly. Rep. Corey Mock, the Democratic House minority leader, said he’s unsure where he stands on recreational use. He does hope that as states like North Dakota field ballot initiatives, Congress will reschedule cannabis, the primary tension legislators grappled with in the wake of the 2016 medical initiative.

Mock said he’s also unsure whether voters will emerge with a clear picture of the cannabis debate. The ballot initiative, and cannabis more generally, will likely get buried in political crossfire because of other high-profile races in North Dakota before November — including a competitive US Senate race that has already saturated the airwaves. Mock said voters might also throw up their hands at the state’s slow response to medical cannabis.

“The longer this delay, the more likely voters will just vote ‘yes’” on legalization, he said.

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