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Cannabis supporters in North Dakota won’t face the big money group this time

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Bismarck, ND – The main group working to legalize recreational marijuana in North Dakota has more than half a million dollars to lobby its cause, far more than the effort they relied on four years ago. Meanwhile, a large oil industry group that helped fund the opposition last time said it would stay on the sidelines this time around.

The group’s president, Ron Ness, said the North Dakota Oil Board will not contribute to the fight against pot rationing efforts that will appear on the November general election ballot.

“It’s one of those things where we only have a lot of resources,” said Ness, whose group represents several hundred companies.

Ness said one in five jobs in North Dakota are directly or indirectly related to the state’s oil industry. He said most oilfield jobs require drug testing, and legalizing the job pot is likely to shrink the hiring pool.

The Energy Group contributed $30,000 to a failed statewide ballot attempt in 2018 to legalize recreational marijuana. He was among a group of lawyers, law enforcement and business leaders who pushed the opposition.

The Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, contributed $64,000 to opposing the measure in 2018. CEO and President Eric Spencer said the group had not decided whether it would help fund — or even support — other opposition efforts. He did so four years ago “largely due to workforce effects,” he said.

Many, including Spencer, have said that legalization of recreational marijuana in North Dakota may be inevitable, as public support for legalization increases despite it being illegal at the federal level.

Nineteen states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana. Supporters believe the state’s 2016 vote to allow medical marijuana indicates they can win in conservative North Dakota.

Legalization proposals are also on the ballot so far this fall in South Dakota, Missouri and Maryland.

“It’s kind of a move to the states around us and Canada, and you know North Dakota probably isn’t far away,” Spencer said.

North Dakota voters in 2018 properly rejected a marijuana legalization initiative that also included a provision that would eliminate previous pot convictions. David Owen, who has led past pro-legalization efforts and the current one, believes the measure could pass this time.

“We are a viable campaign that has a good chance of success,” he said.

Four years ago, pot advocates in North Dakota raised little money for their efforts and got only token help from national rationing groups. Now, the North Dakota legalization group has secured most of the more than $520,000 from the New Advocacy Fund and the Marijuana Policy Project, both of which are advocacy groups in Washington, D.C.

The New Approach initiative on the ballot in November will allow people 21 and older to legally use marijuana at home in addition to owning and growing limited amounts of cannabis.

Except for potting at home, the measure is “word for word” in a bill that passed the North Dakota House of Representatives last year but was later killed in the Senate, Republican Representative Jason Docker, the legislation’s lead sponsor, said.

Docker said the ballot measure has a chance of being passed, and even if it doesn’t, similar legislation could be introduced when the legislature meets in January.

“If it was anywhere close, it would be a wake-up call and you would see bills coming in,” Docter said.

Mark Freese, a prominent North Dakota defense attorney and former police officer, opposed holding the ballot four years ago due to a ruling that overturns pot-related convictions — which he said may have been poorly written and may have eliminated more serious crimes. With that gone, he’s now treasurer of the pro-legislation group.

Friese said legalization can hurt his livelihood because he sometimes gets to work representing people accused of marijuana crimes. But he noted that people accused of low-level crimes often cannot find jobs or housing because of their criminal record.

“We have done us a lot of harm to society with this criminalization,” he said.

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