North Dakota legalized medical cannabis in the November 2016 election. A similar measure failed to make the ballot in 2012 after the state invalidated thousands of the signatures needed for approval, and the state legislature defeated two medical cannabis bills by wide margins in 2015. Nevertheless, state residents surprisingly voted in favor of the North Dakota Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Initiated Statutory Measure 5) with 64-percent support. The new law legalized medical cannabis for patients suffering certain conditions, including cancer, AIDS, hepatitis, glaucoma, epilepsy and others.
Measure 5 received widespread endorsements throughout the Peace Garden State, and a 2014 poll conducted by the University of North Dakota College of Business and Public Administration gave legalization a 47- to 41-percent edge. More specifically, 33 percent of North Dakotans strongly support medical cannabis and 14 percent somewhat, while 35 percent strongly oppose and six percent somewhat. The same survey, however, found that 63 percent of North Dakota residents strongly opposed recreational cannabis.
Interestingly, Measure 5 cleared its first ballot hurdle on the same day the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) decided against reclassifying cannabis from its Schedule I status.
“[It’s] very discouraging…,” said Rilie Ray Morgan, Chair of the committee behind Measure 5 and a chronic back pain sufferer, about the DEA's decision. “It’s just unbelievable that they could be that narrow and closed minded about it.”
Another recreational measure, the North Dakota Legalization of Marijuana Initiative, did not make the 2016 ballot, but its circulation status did not expire, which means it could potentially qualify for the 2018 election.
Thanks to Morgan and hundreds of volunteers canvassing the state, North Dakota has access to medical cannabis. The law allows patients with a registered ID card to possess up to three ounces of cannabis obtained from a compassion center to treat a list of qualifying conditions, which the North Dakota Department of Health can expand. Those who live more than 40 miles away from a compassion center would be allowed to grow up to eight plants in a confined area on their own property.
While MMJ marks a milestone in the Peace Garden State, the criminal penalties for possession remain some of the harshest in the nation. Possession of less than an ounce is a misdemeanor with up to 30 days in jail and a $1500 fine, and anything more than an ounce could mean a felony with up to 10 years in prison and $20,000 in fines. A bill to decrease penalties failed to make it past the committee process in 2015, and there is no pending legislation for the decriminalization of cannabis possession.
Though North Dakota is far behind the times in terms of the prohibition and criminalization of cannabis, it is one of the leaders in industrial hemp farming. It was actually the first state to issue hemp-growing licenses in 2007, which federal drug laws thwarted until Congress passed legislation in 2014 that allowed hemp research. In 2015, Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed into law a new hemp bill that explicitly cuts the federal government out of licensing procedures by allowing farmers (with permits) to raise hemp for commercial, and not just research, purposes.
North Dakota will be the sole issuer of licenses, cutting out the feds by stating in the bill that a “license required by this section is not conditioned on or subject to review or approval by the United States drug enforcement agency,” raising a lot of questions on how the federal government will react to state autonomy on the matter.
“The program’s primary goal is to increase our knowledge of how industrial hemp fits into the existing agriculture landscape and economy,” said Doug Goering, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner.
North Dakota joins a small handful of states that have implemented hemp laws. The United States is the only industrialized nation not to have developed hemp farming for economic purposes, according to a 2005 Congressional Research Service Report.