Marijuana laws remain a complicated issue

With North Dakota’s new law decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana set to take effect on Aug. 1, an already complex issue that other states have also struggled with becomes even more murky in principle in our state.

It isn’t that the issue has been simple prior to the state legislation here.

On one hand, some medical professionals believe marijuana is a danger to users for health reasons; some believe it is a gateway to the use of other drugs; some believe its decriminilization is tantamount to creating new people addicted to drugs.

On the other hand, many medical professionals believe marijuana has incredible medical benefits to some with chronic pain, seizure disorders and other conditions. Some believe is is relatively harmless and less a public health risk than alcohol. So, then, setting aside the complications of medical marijuana (in one form or another), why keep from the general population?

Data is unclear and contradictory. If someone sells you on an absolute, they aren’t being entirely honest.

These factors make the issue unclear, conflicted and often driven by moral issues.

North Dakota voters strongly approved medical marijuana use and the Legislature has complicated the process. A minority of voters supported marijuana legalization.

While the Legislature did not legalize possession of small amounts of the drug, it did not legalize them. It’s not that much different, to be entirely honest. 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. Otherwise, a minor possession violation is similar to a traffic ticket. The difference between the two is largely semantics, although most politicians won’t acknowledge it. Being under the influence of marijuana while operating a vehicle remains a legal matter; selling or allowing access to minors remains a crime; and possessing in large amounts or selling remains a criminal matter.

Still, the optics are bad. And perception is reality in the world of politics.

Minot Daily News officially opposed the use of medical marijuana before it was approved by voters. That wasn’t because MDN doesn’t believe in potential medical benefits; but rather because there are too many instances in other medical marijuana states, prescribed users weren’t responsible and re-sold it to the public. Minot has enough narcotics flooding it. It was no easy decision for the newspaper’s editorial board.

Additionally, decriminalization has its benefits, particularly to the judicial system and to taxpayers. It is effectively decriminalized in much of the nation where minor possession isn’t punished in practice whatever the law is. Offenders rarely encounter jail time but their cases do bog down the legal system (including here) – already overwhelmed – and does anyone believe spending $40,000 or so a year jailing people smoking pot in their own homes makes sense to taxpayers?

Despite the diverse perspectives on the issue, MDN does not believe decriminalization is the right path to follow. First, voters rejected legalization, which is so similar, it is an absurd argument. Secondly, it sends the wrong message to young people. Third, legal possession of small amounts can just empower sellers to expand their reach.

We don’t need more issues with substance abuse.

Both sides of the debate have valid points. And the reality is the nation’s general sentiment seems to lean toward (at least) decriminalization if not legalization. At least legalization would permit taxation, which could then fund healthcare or preservation of Social Security and Medicare.

Decriminalization makes solid sense to many. It frees up judicial system resources, which is certainly needed. It doesn’t punish people doing no harm to anyone but themselves, which is not the public’s business.

However, is it the right way to go? MDN does not believe so, even if the inevitable is… the inevitable.

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