BISMARCK — A plan among North Dakota lawmakers to legalize recreational marijuana use in the state has been nipped in the bud.

The House of Representatives approved House Bill 1420 last month, but the legalization legislation failed to win over the Senate, which has fewer libertarian-leaning Republicans.

In an overwhelming rejection, the upper chamber voted 37-10 on Thursday, March 25, to shoot down the 50-page proposal, which would have created a legal pot program and allowed adults over 21 to possess and use marijuana products after July 1, 2022.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, voted against the bill after telling Forum News Service last week that he would support it. The controversial proposal didn't even receive a majority from the chamber's seven Democrats.

Lawmakers who voted to kill the bill said they couldn't put their name on legislation that defies their position that marijuana is harmful to users and society at large. Opponents also noted that the police and some health advocates disapprove of the legalization of marijuana.

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Sen. David Clemens, R-West Fargo, cited concerns that legalizing the drug could lead to more mental health issues and a rise in driving under the influence. Clemens appealed to his colleagues that most of them didn't campaign on legalizing pot.

The Republican-dominated Legislature was always an unlikely venue for legalizing marijuana.

Conservatives who backed the bill, including prime sponsor Bismarck Rep. Jason Dockter, strongly oppose marijuana use, but they believe a citizen-initiated legalization ballot measure will pass sooner or later in North Dakota. South Dakota and Montana voters approved legalization measures last year, and the attitudes toward the drug could be changing in North Dakota too, they say. Overall, 15 states have legalized recreational pot since 2012, though some have yet to roll out their programs.

Bill supporters, like West Fargo Republican Sen. Judy Lee, argued that if the Legislature fails to preempt a successful ballot measure, lawmakers may not have much discretion over the pot program's rules.

"I wish we were not here having to deal with this, but I really believe adult cannabis is coming," Lee said. "I think the train has left the station — we can see the headlight of the engine coming down the tracks. I would way rather be in the engine driving it than tied to the tracks so they could run over me."

North Dakota Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, speaks on behalf of a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in the Senate chamber on Thursday, March 25, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
North Dakota Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, speaks on behalf of a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in the Senate chamber on Thursday, March 25, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Opponents of the bill rejected that argument, saying lawmakers should trust the voters to uphold anti-pot laws. Clemens said legislators are elected to lead, and the threat of a ballot measure is turning them into followers.

"It's the wrong thing to do to pass something that we don't like just so we don't get something we hate," said Bismarck Republican Sen. Diane Larson.

A legalization effort failed at the ballot box in 2018, but two marijuana advocacy organizations have stated their intentions to gather signatures and put measures on the ballot in 2022. One of the groups aims to cement legal cannabis in the state Constitution — the greatest concern of many Republican legislators.

The other group, Legalize ND, will be going forward with putting legalization on the ballot next year, said Chairman Dave Owen.

"With the failure of 1420, we are going to do exactly what we said we are going to do which is push a full legalization ballot initiative," Owen said in a text message. "We are confident it will pass."

The Senate also voted down a companion bill that would have set a 15% tax rate for consumers buying marijuana and a 10% levy on retailers selling the drug to dispensaries. Another proposal to add edible products to the already legal medical marijuana program failed to persuade the two-thirds of the chamber it needed to pass.

The upper chamber will likely consider a separate bill on Friday, March 26, to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of marijuana. House Bill 1201 would make it a noncriminal offense to possess as much as one ounce, or 28.35 grams, of pot, while also lowering the maximum penalties for possessing large amounts of the drug.

How North Dakota senators voted

Voting for the legalization bill were Sens. Bell, Heckaman, Hogan, Holmberg, Kreun, Lee, Meyer, Oban, Poolman and K. Roers.

Voting against the legalization bill were Sens. Anderson, Bakke, Bekkedahl, Burckhard, Clemens, Conley, Davison, Dever, Dwyer, Elkin, Erbele, Fors, Heitkamp, Hogue, Kannianen, Klein, Krebsbach, D. Larsen, O. Larsen, Larson, Lemm, Luick, Marcellais, Mathern, Myrdal, Oehlke, Patten, Piepkorn, J. Roers, Rust, Schaible, Sorvaag, Vedaa, Wanzek, Wardner, Weber and Wobbema.