Minot legislators mixed on new law reducing marijuana penalty

Getting caught with less than half an ounce of marijuana won’t get you more than a fine after Aug. 1.

The North Dakota Legislature eliminated the threat of jail time in reducing possession of small amounts from a Class B misdemeanor, subject to up to a $1,500 fine and 30 days in jail, to an infraction, which carries a fine up to $1,000. Infractions, like traffic tickets, don’t carry the weight of a misdemeanor, and Minot legislators have mixed feelings about that.

“It was a horrible bill – absolutely horrible,” Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, said. “What I think will happen is that people will go to Oregon or wherever they can to get some weed and they are going to break it down into half ounces and start selling half ounces to anyone who wants it. There’s nothing that will happen to them.

“Even if it’s $1,000, that’s cheap,” he said. “As long as it never goes on my record and I never go to jail, I am going to be selling that stuff like hotcakes. There’s absolutely no teeth in that at all anymore.”

The new law created by House Bill 1050 does move the offense up to a Class B misdemeanor if the person already has at least two prior convictions of the same infraction within a year. Any possession also is a Class B misdemeanor if the offender is younger than 21 or if the amount exceeds a half ounce. More than 500 grams moves the offense to a Class A misdemeanor.

Larsen said he spoke with professionals who work with drug courts and addiction treatment who did not support the bill.

Legislators approved HB 1050 after previously voting 43-47 to kill House Bill 1155, which would have gone further to decriminalize marijuana. It had proposed a fine of $200 for possession of an ounce or less.

Reps. Matt Ruby and Randy Schobinger were the only members of the Minot delegation who voted for it.

Regarding the passage of HB 1050, Ruby said he always favored the concept of decriminalization, but the argument that swayed him came from law enforcement.

“I talked to a lot of law enforcement officers who were in favor of it,” he said. “That’s not who they are looking for. They feel it’s a lot of wasted money going to courts over a minuscule amount of marijuana.”

Schobinger said he can support eliminating the threat of jail time for a half ounce or less of marijuana possession.

“I thought for a long time that we make criminals out of some people that we really shouldn’t be. My biggest issue is when people start selling it and making money,” he said.

Rep. Bob Paulson, R-Minot, said the original HB 1050 heard in the Judiciary Committee, on which he served, dealt with release of incarcerated individuals on drug paraphernalia charges following successful completion of a treatment program. It was amended in the Senate to include the marijuana infraction, and he supported the amended bill.

“I do not support legalization of marijuana. However, I believe decriminalization of a small, ‘personal use’ amount of marijuana may decrease incarceration rates, reduce costs for our criminal justice system and allow parents to be in the home providing for their families without a criminal record,” Paulson said.

The House passed HB 1050 on a vote of 69-23. Rep. Larry Bellew, R-Minot, was the only Minot representative to vote against it.

“We legalized marijuana in that bill,” Bellew said. “We legalized marijuana, and voters last fall said they did not want legal marijuana.”

North Dakota voters rejected recreational marijuana legalization last November. Advocates are hoping to get another measure on the ballot for a second try in 2020.

HB 1050 called for an interim study on the implications should recreational marijuana become legal. Bellew suggested that’s another step toward legalizing recreational marijuana, which he opposes.

“I am one of those old-timers who believe that marijuana is a gateway drug,” he said.

The Senate voted 31-15 to pass HB 1050. Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, said he was against it because he sees decriminalization as moving in the wrong direction.

“People who do possess it should have significant consequences,” he said.

Hogue said he understands that judges already are lenient with small quantity possession. He heard the argument that the bill would bring the law more in line with judicial practice.

“My response to them was it’s our job to set the penalties and the policy,” he said. “I don’t feel it’s the Legislature’s job to parrot what the judiciary is doing in practice, unless we agree with what they are doing.”

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