North Dakota’s Failed Road to Recreational Cannabis Legalization

North Dakota’s Failed Road to Recreational Cannabis Legalization

A recent failure to procure enough signatures to put a legalized marijuana initiative on the 2022 ballot in North Dakota reveals the state’s tough road to legalization. 

In 2016 the highly conservative state unexpectedly voted for medical marijuana legalization for qualified recipients by a surprisingly large margin – 64% to 36%. The medical legalization came after a loss for the same law in 2014. In 2018 the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) tried to create similar success for recreational cannabis use with a ballot measure. North Dakota voters rejected the cannabis measure due to the lack of structure of the legislation. The 2018 ballot measure did not limit the amount of cannabis people could cultivate and/or possess. There were also no guidelines for rules and regulations for the marijuana industry if the ballot had passed, alienating both state lawmakers and voters.

However, legislation that reduced possession penalties for under a half-ounce was signed into law and went into effect in 2019. Any recreational sales are still classified as a felony.

The same year the group Legalize ND put a legalization effort on hold due to COVID-19. The group was worried they could not safely and effectively do the groundwork needed to garner support. 

The most recent recreational marijuana initiative in North Dakota began in 2021 and failed to garner the signatures it needed to make it to the ballot in November. The initiative’s sponsor, Dustin Peyer, fell short of the 31,164 signatures required to advance the initiative to a poll. Peyer’s group could only procure 19,500 signatures in one year since the Secretary of State approved the petition.

The deputy director of the MPP, Matt Schweich, spoke to MjBizDaily and told them MPP is exploring a separate 2022 marijuana initiative in the state. Schweich was tight-lipped about who the MPP is working with, but he did say in an email, “if we decide to move forward, we will work to earn the support of all grassroots cannabis reform groups in North Dakota.”

So why has it been such an uphill battle for recreational cannabis advocates? 

The entire middle of the country mostly ranges from medically legal to no marijuana laws in place (with a few exceptions, of course). The location of the state is one primary reason. Other surrounding states that share conservative political values with North Dakota have been moving at a similar pace. The most progress has been bordering Montana; just this year, the state’s final recreational step – retail stores – was implemented. The other bordering states – South Dakota and Minnesota – have similarly stringent medical marijuana laws.

Another Midwestern state, Kansas, has Democratic legislators pushing for legalization on the 2022 ballot. More states are expected to join (Iowa and Maryland lawmakers have already drafted bills for 2022 ballots). While perhaps incremental, lawmakers and advocates are pushing for the middle of America to begin legalization, and it is yet to be seen if North Dakota will join this year.

A second reason North Dakota has faced recreational legalization pushback is the resistance from opposition lobbyists and lawmakers. In 2018 cannabis opponents heavily outraised and outspent cannabis proponents; this is hardly a surprise in a state as conservative as North Dakota. In early 2021 Republican lawmakers who opposed legislation led an initiative to legalize. While this seems counterintuitive, their goal was to create a set of strict cannabis laws before advocates could pass a less restrictive measure. The Senate defeated this legislation after passing the House. 

There was another attempt by lawmakers to put up their version of the legislation for the 2022 ballot, but that legislation was also not successful. For this reason, organizations and advocates might be more determined to focus on states that they believe have a better chance of getting onto ballots. 

There is little doubt that North Dakota faces a long fight regarding recreational legalization, and it has yet to be seen if the MPP will make a concerted effort to push a 2022 initiative. If they choose not to, the state will almost certainly have another battle in 2024. It might be years before there is movement in the North Dakota cannabis industry, but the state should not be counted out as one to watch for cannabis reform.

Reading next

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.