Those factors could make for a tough sell for voters in November. But if the measure qualifies for the ballot, supporters are hoping a pitch based on criminal-justice reform will carry them to victory in a state where marijuana users have some of the nation’s highest odds of getting arrested — and face some of the nation’s toughest criminal penalties if they do.
The bill, as written by supporters, would legalize the possession, sale and use of marijuana for North Dakotans 21 and older. It would also expunge previous marijuana convictions from North Dakotans' criminal records. The measure leaves a lot of open questions: It places no limits on possession, for instance, and doesn’t set up any sort of regulatory structure for the sales it would allow.
Supporters say that’s by design. “We leave our bill wide open so the legislature can do their job — regulations, taxes, zoning, whatever,” said Cole Haymond, an adviser to the Legalize ND campaign. “This bill is by far the most progressive yet most conservative marijuana legalization bill that will be on any ballot across the country.”
Haymond shared internal polling conducted by the campaign showing that as of February, 46 percent of North Dakota voters supported the measure, 39 percent opposed it and 15 percent were undecided.
North Dakota has one of the lowest rates of marijuana use in the nation. Fewer than 10 percent of state residents used the drug in 2016, according to the federal National Survey on Drug Use and Health, putting it at 47th among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia for marijuana use.
But the relatively few North Dakotans who do use the drug have some of the nation’s greatest chances of getting arrested for it. In 2016, for instance, 61,000 North Dakotans used marijuana at least once, while 2,513 of them were arrested for simple marijuana possession, according to FBI crime data compiled by NORML, a pro-legalization group.
That works out to a rate of 41 arrests per 1,000 users, the second-highest in the United States. By contrast, neighboring Minnesota arrests marijuana users at a rate of 7 per 1,000. In Vermont and Massachusetts, marijuana arrest rates were less than 1 per 1,000 even before those states legalized use of the drug.
Data from the North Dakota attorney general’s office shows that marijuana arrests made up an ever larger share of total arrests in recent years. From 1990 to 2013, marijuana arrests increased from 1.7 percent of all arrests to 6.9 percent, meaning roughly 1 in every 15 arrests in North Dakota was for a marijuana offense. Data from more recent years isn’t directly comparable with those numbers, because of changes in reporting methods.
North Dakotans also face particularly stiff penalties if they are caught using marijuana. Possession of less than an ounce is considered a misdemeanor punishable by 30 days of jail time and a $1,500 fine. Possession of anything over an ounce is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
The North Dakota secretary of state still needs to certify the signatures for the measure to qualify for the ballot. Either way, national marijuana policy groups say they’re keeping an eye on what happens in the state in the coming months.
“Grass-roots efforts like the one in North Dakota are inspiring important public dialogue about the benefits of adopting an alternative policy that treats marijuana more like alcohol,” said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project. “It remains to be seen whether it will qualify for the ballot, but there is no doubt it has advanced the conversation and the movement toward ending marijuana prohibition, both in North Dakota and nationwide.”