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Marijuana decriminalization backer disappointed by North Dakota House-Senate compromise

Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, introduces House Bill 1097 to the House Industry, Business and Labor Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, at the state Capitol in Bismarck. The bill would allow retailers the choice to be open on Sunday mornings. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — A backer of marijuana decriminalization efforts in the North Dakota Legislature said she was disappointed by an amended bill that advanced Wednesday, April 24.

A House-Senate conference committee agreed to reduce penalties for possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana from a Class B misdemeanor to an infraction, which carries a maximum fine of $1,000. As approved by the Senate earlier this month, the bill would have imposed a noncriminal fine of $250 for that amount of the drug.

But the new bill also bumps up penalties for possessing between an ounce and a half-pound of marijuana to a Class A misdemeanor, and having more than a half-pound would be a Class C felony. The latter offense carries a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Currently, state law imposes Class B misdemeanor penalties for possessing any amount of marijuana, though Fargo Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones said people carrying larger quantities can face charges for "intent to deliver."

Roers Jones, who sponsored a previous decriminalization bill that failed in the House, said she was disappointed by the committee's actions. She noted that an infraction still creates a criminal record.

"It is absolutely not decriminalization," Roers Jones said of the updated bill.

Voters rejected a marijuana legalization ballot measure last year, but supporters are preparing for another run in 2020. Decriminalization backers have argued it could help alleviate criminal justice concerns stemming from such a push.

Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, called the amended bill a "happy medium because the Legislature clearly is addressing the issue."

The full House and Senate still have to approve the bill before it can go to the governor's desk.

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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