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Stenehjem backs decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana

December 14, 2018

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s top law enforcement officer says he will back legislation that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, noting that it would reflect the reality of what’s already happening in state courts.

“There is nobody in jail who only possessed or used a small amount (of marijuana),” Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Wednesday. “That just isn’t the typical sentence in those cases.”

Under the legislation being drafted and sponsored by Fargo GOP Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, someone caught with less than an ounce of marijuana or two pot plants or fewer would be fined $200. It’s currently a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

The bill will be considered when the legislative session convenes Jan. 3 in Bismarck. It comes after North Dakota voters in November rejected a measure that would have made it legal for people 21 and older to grow, possess, use and distribute marijuana.

The ballot measure also would have sealed the records of anyone convicted of a marijuana-related crime that, under the measure, would have been legal.

Roers Jones said she also is crafting separate legislation that would allow the sealing of criminal records for people previously convicted of some misdemeanor crimes, including marijuana possession, if they avoid unlawful behavior for a few years, probably three to five. It would exclude non-violent, non-sexual offenses, and it isn’t clear yet whether records would be sealed automatically or if people would have to request their records be sealed.

She said she thinks this would help expand the pool of available workers in the state, which has more than 13,000 advertised job openings.

“The workforce element is part of it,” Roers Jones said. “People who have made poor decisions at some point in the past would have the opportunity to reset their record to a certain extent.”

Stenehejem said he also would support such a measure so that the people convicted of minor crimes “could move on without having it burden their lives forever.”

Mike Nowatzki, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Burgum, said the governor supports decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. Nowatzki said he could not comment on the bill to expunge past misdemeanor records because the governor has not seen it.

Dave Owen, a University of North Dakota student who was chairman of the failed Legalize ND campaign, said the bill to decriminalize small amounts of pot is “a step in the right direction” but he will continue to push for full legalization with a similar initiative in 2020.

Owen, a Libertarian, said he supports wiping records clean of people convicted of marijuana possession, but not misdemeanors involving property crimes, including shoplifting.

He also opposes putting the onus on those convicted of misdemeanors to have their records sealed. He believes an attorney would have to be hired to help navigate the court system.

“I have problems with the cost and the amount of time that would be involved,” he said. “If someone can’t find a job because of a marijuana charge, how are they going to pay for it?”

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