BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The main group working to legalize recreational marijuana in North Dakota has more than a half-million dollars to press its case, far more than the mostly shoe-leather effort they relied on four years ago. Meanwhile, a major oil industry group that helped fund opposition last time said it will sit on the sidelines this time.
The North Dakota Petroleum Council will not contribute to fight the pot legalization effort that will appear on the November general election ballot, said Ron Ness, the group’s president.
“It’s one of those things where we only have so many resources,” said Ness, whose group represents several hundred companies.
Ness said one in five North Dakota jobs are directly or indirectly tied to the state’s oil industry. Most oilfield jobs require drug testing, and legalizing pot would likely shrink the employment pool, he said.
The energy group contributed $30,000 to the failed statewide ballot effort in 2018 to legalize recreational marijuana. It was among a group of lawyers, law enforcement and business leaders that pushed opposition.
The Greater North Dakota Chamber, the state’s largest business organization, contributed $64,000 to oppose the measure in 2018. CEO and President Arik Spencer said the group hasn’t decided whether it will help fund — or even support — another opposition effort. It did so four years ago “largely because of workforce impacts,” he said.
Many, including Spencer, said legalizing recreational marijuana in North Dakota may be inevitable, as public support for legalization increases despite being illegal at the federal level.
Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana. Supporters think the state’s 2016 vote allowing medicinal marijuana suggests they can win in conservative North Dakota.
Legalization proposals also are on the ballot so far this fall in South Dakota, Missouri and Maryland.
“It’s kind of moving in in the states around us and Canada, and you know North Dakota is probably not too far down the line,” Spencer said.
North Dakota voters in in 2018 soundly rejected a marijuana legalization initiative that also included a provision that would wipe out past pot-related convictions. David Owen, who has led past pro-legalization efforts and also the current, believes the measure could pass this time.
“We’re a viable campaign that has a good chance of success,” he said.
Four years ago, North Dakota pot advocates raised little money for their effort and got only token help from national legalization groups. Now, the North Dakota legalization group has gotten most of its more than $520,000 from the New Approach Advocacy Fund and the Marijuana Policy Project, both Washington, D.C.-based pro-pot groups.
The New Approach initiative on the ballot in November would allow people 21 and older to legally use marijuana at home as well as possess and cultivate restricted amounts of cannabis.
With the exception of growing pot at home, the measure is “basically word for word” that in a bill approved by the North Dakota House last year but later killed in the Senate, said GOP Rep. Jason Dockter, the legislation’s prime sponsor.
Dockter said the ballot measure has a chance of passing, and even if it doesn’t, similar legislation could be introduced when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
“If it’s anywhere close it’s going to be a wake-up call and you’re going to see bills coming,” Dockter said.
Mark Friese, a prominent North Dakota defense attorney and former police officer, opposed the ballot measure four years ago due to the provision expunging pot-related convictions — which he said was badly written and might have led to more serious crimes being wiped away. With that gone, he’s now treasurer for the pro-legalization group.
Friese said legalization could hurt his livelihood since he sometimes gets business representing people charged with marijuana offenses. But he noted that people charged with low-level pot offenses often can’t find jobs or housing because of their criminal record.
“We hurt society a lot with this criminalization,” he said.