With little notice, North Dakota last week became the 25th state to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession.
North Dakota last week became the 25th state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana after a bill that removes the possibility of jail time was signed into law by Republican Governor Doug Burgum.
The decriminalization bill, HB 1050, passed the state legislature by a narrow margin after a bill that would have allowed possession of larger amounts was defeated in the House in February.
HB 1050 was introduced in the North Dakota House by Majority Caucus Leader Shannon Roers Jones (R) and Rep. Bernie Satrom (R), and in the Senate by Senators Jessica Unruh (R), Kristen Roers (R), and Jessica Myrdal (R).
Once it goes into effect, North Dakota’s new marijuana law states that those caught with half an ounce or less of marijuana will have to pay a $1,000 fine yet serve no jail time for a first time offense.
Those caught with more than half an ounce of marijuana will be charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony, as was previously the case. Possession of marijuana paraphernalia will be treated as only a minor infraction moving forward.
The law is set to go into effect August 1st.
Pro-reform advocates are pleased with the news.
“This legislation is far from ideal, but it is a substantial step in the right direction,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, in a press release. “It is very encouraging to see a conservative state like North Dakota acknowledge and rectify the injustice of jailing people for possession of small amounts of marijuana.”
The bill was signed into law on May 2 with little fanfare from the Governor’s office and the state’s legislative leadership, subsequently leading to little state media coverage. The development was first reported by NORML.
Medical marijuana was legalized in the state two years ago via referendum. North Dakota previously had the sixth highest amount of marijuana arrests in the nation.
Further Reform on the Horizon
North Dakota’s new bill also calls for the state legislature to consider studying both the merits and drawbacks of legalizing recreational marijuana.
A referendum initiative on the ballot in North Dakota last year would have legalized the sale and use of recreational marijuana for those 21 and older, but left much of the mechanism of its subsequent regulation and taxation to be devised by the legislature at a later date, unlike other ballot referendums. However, it failed at the ballot box.
Advocates are planning to launch a campaign for a more narrowly worded ballot referendum next year.
While decriminalization makes possession of marijuana a minor crime not punishable with jail time, it does not allow the substance to be sold as a legitimate commodity. Cannabis advocates believe this will allow the black market to continue flourishing.
Decriminalization has already been signed into law this year in New Mexico and is in various stages of passage in Hawaii, Texas, and Alabama.