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In North Dakota, supporters of legalizing marijuana push for vote

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Supporters of marijuana legalization in North Dakota have submitted more than 18,000 signatures to the secretary of state in support of a measure that would fully legalize the drug, well above the 13,452 signatures required to put the question on the November ballot.

Like a recent successful medical marijuana measure in Oklahoma, the effort has largely flown under the radar, with no financial backing from national drug policy groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project. And like in Oklahoma, North Dakota is a deep red state that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.

Those factors could make for a tough sell to 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 age 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 place 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 seven per 1,000. In Vermont and Massachusetts, marijuana arrest rates were less than one 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 have been making 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 one in every 15 arrests in North Dakota was for a marijuana offense. Data from more recent years isn't directly comparable to those numbers due to 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 North Dakota 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."

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This article was written by Christopher Ingraham, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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