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ND recreational marijuana group submits signatures hours ahead of deadline

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger bundles the stacks of signed petition documents for the North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative on July 9, 2018, in Bismarck. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune1 / 2
Dave Owen, middle, chairman of the North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative, celebrtaes a high-five with volunteer Becky Muhs-Rettig inside the Secretary of State's office at the state Capitol on July 9 in Bismarck. More than a dozen volunteers filed into the room to submit the more than 18,000 petition signatures to Jaeger's office. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune2 / 2

BISMARCK — A jubilant group of recreational marijuana supporters submitted an estimated 18,700 signatures to North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger’s office Monday, July 9, hours ahead of the midnight deadline to ensure the measure could appear on the November ballot.

The proposal’s backers need at least 13,452 signatures to ask voters to amend state law. Jaeger has 35 days to review the signatures.

The marijuana measure would lift the drug’s prohibition for people over the age of 21, allowing them to use, buy, sell and grow the substance, one organizer said. Underage marijuana possession or selling the drug to minors would be treated as if the substance was alcohol.

The proposal would also create a process for expunging records for those previously convicted of a crime that’s legalized by the measure. David Owen, the sponsoring committee’s chairman, said that won’t release prisoners early or affect pending cases.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have authorized recreational marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“It’s time to legalize,” Owen said, crediting the effort’s roughly 100 volunteer signature gatherers.

The North Dakota Sheriff’s and Deputies Association has already passed a resolution opposing the ballot measure, its executive director Donnell Preskey Hushka said. Pat Rummel, the Billings County sheriff and the organization’s president, said they’re worried about impaired drivers and crime rates.

Owen, meanwhile, said law enforcement has “bigger problems” than marijuana, such as meth and opioid abuse.

North Dakota voters easily approved a medical marijuana measure in 2016, but state legislators rewrote the law last year after identifying what they called some flaws. Owen said their measure won’t make the medical program obsolete.

“Medical marijuana inherently has to be held to higher standards than recreational marijuana,” he said. “Medical marijuana is designed to be a medicine and a cure.”

North Dakota’s medical marijuana program is still getting off the ground. The state Department of Health has selected two growers and a dispensary operator application period is set to open Tuesday.

Jason Wahl, the department’s medical marijuana director, declined to speculate what the full legalization measure could mean for his program.

“There hasn’t been a whole of discussion on our end, as we’re required under the law to implement the medical marijuana program and we’re attempting to do that as quickly as we can and to ensure that the program is well-regulated,” he said.

Later on Thursday, a group seeking personalized vehicle plates for volunteer emergency responders submitted about 15,000 signatures.

The proposal would direct the state Department of Transportation to issue red personalized plates “at no initial or annual cost to the volunteers,” which includes firefighters and emergency medical personnel. The DOT, in cooperation with the volunteer groups, would be tasked with developing qualifications and verification procedures for the plates.

Four groups have now submitted signatures seeking to ask North Dakota voters to amend the state’s constitution or laws in November.

Last week, backers of a measure seeking to ensure only U.S. citizens vote in North Dakota elections submitted their signatures in a bid to amend the state constitution. Another group proposing an anti-corruption constitutional amendment delivered their signatures in mid-June.

Jaeger’s office hasn’t yet verified signatures for those measures.

A petition seeking a minimum wage boost faltered, however, and supporters of repealing North Dakota’s Sunday morning shopping ban ditched the measure process in favor of reintroducing legislation next year.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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