GRAND FORKS — Consistency is not a hallmark of the legislative process, and this year’s session is a breathtaking example.
For proof, consider the effort to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
To begin with, the bill sponsors assert that they are dead set against legalized pot. Their motives in sponsoring the legislation are specifically to keep marijuana as hard to get at as possible.
The drafting process isn’t complete by any means, but so far, we’ve seen suggestions that marijuana should be available only in the same outlets authorized to dispense medical marijuana, and then only in small quantities. And sellers would have to keep track of buyers.
That’s contradiction No. 1.
Take a look at marijuana’s nearest analog, alcohol. Alcohol is available across the state. In fact, many of the alcohol outlets are emporiums, with huge spaces displaying an enormous variety of products containing alcohol. Even in the state’s smallest towns, alcohol is available “over the counter” though not in the bewildering variety that large package stores display.
There are only eight medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, which means that anybody living outside one of the state’s major cities is going to have a long drive to get a little high. If marijuana is to be legal, it ought to be available, as alcohol is. Perhaps the state’s off-sale liquor licensees could add marijuana to their product lines.
Here’s another way that the proposed marijuana law runs contrary to the established liquor control laws: It’s legal to make your own beer. Or wine. But growing your own marijuana would not be legal.
Even that isn’t the end of it, of course. Legislators who are ordinarily hostile to regulation seem to embrace very tight controls on marijuana. Here the nearest analog is the cottage food legislation that’s been hotly debated in the last two sessions. These loosened regulations significantly, over the objections of the state Health Department.
In general, I’m in sympathy with the cottage food movement. I’m a home gardener, and I share my produce. I grew up on what might be called a “raw milk” dairy farm. We milked cows, bottled the milk and delivered whole milk, cream and skim milk to customers in Stanley, including one grocery store. We churned our own butter, ice cream and cottage cheese, but we didn’t sell those items, although one customer did get buttermilk. Twice a year a state inspector came by the farm to make sure the place was clean, and there were regular tests for a bovine disease, brucellosis, which we always called “bangs.” That was the extent of regulations.
We’re still not done with the legislative contradictions when it comes to marijuana. The North Dakota legislative is not friendly to increased regulation of most industries, including agricultural industries. Feedlots, for example. And the energy industry.
This contradiction is the more striking because legal marijuana has plenty of supporters among conservative folk in North Dakota. That was obvious when medical use of marijuana was approved. The initiated measure was poorly drafted, unfortunately, and the Legislature loaded it up with amendments its sponsors hadn’t imagined. A parade of state officials warned about the side effects, so to speak, of the legislation. The result was a drawn-out rollout of a cramped and inefficient distribution system, even though the product was made legal by a vote of nearly two thirds of the electorate.
That was in the 2016 election, when Donald Trump won about the same percentage of votes in the state. Even if everybody who voted against Trump voted for medical marijuana — which isn’t the case, of course — it still means that half of Trump voters favored legalizing medical marijuana. That was apparent at rallies during the 2018 U.S. Senate campaign, when recreational marijuana was on the ballot. Supporters of Republican Senate candidate Kevin Cramer showed up with buttons favoring legalized marijuana right next to their “Cramer” buttons. Cramer won, but the recreational marijuana initiative failed.
This session, legislators are crafting a very restrictive bill that would recognize recreational use of marijuana as a legal activity. These are conservative Republicans who otherwise like talking about individual rights.
Like I say, it’s contradictory. Of course, there’s a stronger word for it, but I don’t like to be inflammatory.
At least some legislators are candid about their motives. They’re trying to head off broader legalization efforts that might show up on state election ballots. A couple of these are floating around; one would enshrine legal marijuana in the state constitution.
Legalization with a raft of restrictions won’t stop those efforts.
Just to be plain, I favor legalization of marijuana along the lines of legal alcohol, that is to say, licensed premises and age limits. I’d be OK with marijuana sales in liquor stores, which already meet those two requirements. As for individuals? We should be able to grow marijuana for our own use.
Wrong again: Thomas Kleppe did not serve in the North Dakota Legislature, as I wrote last week. He was mayor of Bismarck and president of the Gold Seal Company before he entered the U.S. House of Representatives.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.