BISMARK – Last week, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum signed a bill that decriminalizes low-level marijuana possession within the confines of his state; the bill essentially does away with jail time for those caught with small, “personal use” amounts of the drug. With the signing of this bill, North Dakota has become the 25th U.S. state to enact such a law.
Word on the reform legislation is only now getting to the press, as Burgum apparently took great pains to keep its signing relatively quiet, most likely because North Dakota is typically a Republican-voting state with overall conservative leanings.
The bill offers no jail time for first-time offenders caught with half-an-ounce or less of marijuana; instead, it will subject the offender to a fine of up to $1,000, with no permanent criminal record being levied. However, if an individual racks up additional offences within the span of a year from the original infraction, a misdemeanor charge could be imposed along with potential jail time and a strike on their criminal record. In addition, marijuana paraphernalia possession will also be considered an infraction and subject to fines without jail time.
The bill also reduces penalties for possession of marijuana in amounts greater than one ounce. Under the newly-imposed law, possession of marijuana in an amount greater than half-an-ounce but less than 500 grams is now considered a “class B” misdemeanor; previously, it would have been a felony. Penalties for possession of over 500 grams of marijuana have also been reduced from a felony to a “class A” misdemeanor.
The law dictates that the new penalties for marijuana possession in the state of North Dakota will go into effect on August 1, 2019.
In addition, the bill signed by Governor Burgum allows for research into the pros and cons associated with the potential legalization of recreational marijuana at some point in the future. However, North Dakota residents voted against a ballot measure regarding the legalization of marijuana in 2018, so it is unlikely that a similar measure will be passed any time soon.
Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a marijuana policy reform organization, noted that the new law was a “substantial step in the right direction.”
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,” he said. “Lawmakers can no longer ignore public support for marijuana policy reform, which is growing quickly in every part of the country.”
In 2019, several states have already passed similar measures regarding marijuana decriminalization and the reduction of penalties of low-level possession, including New Mexico, Texas, and Hawaii. In Alabama, a similar bill was approved by a Senate committee, whereas an alternate version of the bill failed to make it through the House of Representatives. In addition, New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently instructed law enforcement in his state to merely ticket minor public use offences, as opposed to making arrests, without passing a law regarding the matter.