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Criminal Justice Reform Key Component of ND Marijuana Legalization

Colorado and eight other states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)
Colorado and eight other states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)
July 20, 2018

BISMARCK, N.D. – Backers of a measure to legalize recreational marijuana use in North Dakota say it could be a major step for criminal justice reform.

The state attorney general has until August 13 to verify signatures and determine if the initiative qualifies for the ballot. Petitioners turned in about 5,000 more signatures than needed.

David Owen, chair of Legalize ND, says marijuana convictions are overcrowding prisons. He also notes it costs more than $40,000 a year to lock someone up, but only about $8,000 to send someone to college in the state.

"So that means for every one person we're putting in prison, that's four to four-and-a-half scholarships that we didn't give to kids looking to go to college and to advance themselves," says Owen.

North Dakota has the second-highest rate of arrests for marijuana users in the nation, according to the FBI. North Dakotans also face some of stiffest penalties.

Opponents of legalization warn it could lead to increased use among youth, and safety issues from people driving under the influence.

One key to the measure is the automatic removal of past marijuana convictions from people's criminal records.

Owen says because expungement would be automatic, individuals and the state would spend less on legal fees. He says marijuana convictions make it harder for people in a number of areas, including getting student loans and state assistance.

"Even something as simple as applying for rent on an apartment – they don't have to disclose this record anymore, which allows them to get a higher-paying job, which ultimately allows them to become a more productive member of the community," says Owen.

And an American Medical Association study suggests marijuana could help mitigate the opioid crisis, reducing opioid addiction rates by up to 20 percent. Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND