On May 2, with little fanfare, North Dakota’s Gov. Doug Burgum signed into law a bill that made North Dakota the 25th state in the nation to eliminate jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana, though it remains a criminal offense in the state.
Under HB 1050, possession of up to only a half-ounce of marijuana will have penalties reduced to no jail time. In many states that have passed decriminalization reforms, the quantity was up to a full ounce with a civil citation not criminal infraction, but North Dakotans will still certainly be better off than days past.
Before Burgum signed off on the bill, possession offenses were a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail in addition to a fine. Now, they are an infraction and a fine of up to $1000.
Other penalties were also scaled back with the signing of HB 1050. Those caught in possession of fewer than 500 grams but more than a half ounce will be hit with a Class B misdemeanor. That misdemeanor could come with a penalty of up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,500. Previously, getting caught with more than an ounce and up to 500 grams could have landed you in jail for five years up to a $10,000 fine.
The bill also stipulated that after someone’s third infraction of less than a half ounce, it would count as a Class B misdemeanor. If you get caught up with more than 500 grams, it is a Class A misdemeanor that could get you a year in jail and a fine of up to $3,000.
The bill also made possession of paraphernalia an infraction. Before the reform, police finding a bong could have led to a year in jail.
One place North Dakota could have certainly done a little better is dealing with those young whippersnappers who are able to get their hands on some ganja. HB 1050 makes the consumption of marijuana by a person under the age of 21 a Class B misdemeanor, while advocates argue that some kind of diversion program would have been preferable.
The bill also requires lawmakers to commission a study on cannabis legalization and what it could mean for the state.
“This legislation is far from ideal, but it is a substantial step in the right direction,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project in a statement. “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. Lawmakers can no longer ignore public support for marijuana policy reform, which is growing quickly in every part of the country.”
NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri weighed in on the news to Cannabis Now via email.
“While describing the recent legislation in North Dakota as decriminalization is a bit of a misnomer, since it remains a criminal offense, removing the possibility of any jail time and replacing it with a fine for possession of a half-ounce or less is indisputably a step in the right direction,” he wrote.
Alteri went on to note just how oppressed North Dakotan marijuana users have been over the years.
“North Dakota has long had one of the highest marijuana arrest rates per capita in the nation and this measure will mitigate some of the harms being caused by marijuana prohibition in the state,” Altieri said. “We encourage North Dakotans to support efforts to place legalization on the ballot a second time in 2020 and work towards its approval so no adult will ever again be treated like a criminal for simply possessing a plant.”
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