In North Dakota, the Fight to Legalize Cannabis Heats Up

Published on November 2, 2018 · Last updated October 28, 2022

North Dakota would be one of the next states to legalize recreational cannabis if voters pass Measure 3 on Election Day. But as rhetoric around the initiative heats up, its chances of success are still anyone’s guess.

Predictions mean nothing: One poll shows 51% support, another shows 26%. Meanwhile, Native Americans are fighting just to cast a ballot.

Two years ago, North Dakota voters took observers by surprise when they overwhelmingly passed Measure 5 to legalize medical cannabis. That measure originally intended to legalize recreational use, too, Legalize ND Chairman David Owen told Leafly, but the version that made the 2016 ballot was stripped of that language.

“[Recreational] didn’t make the ballot as a result because of a competition with the medical signatures,” Owen explained. “I was on the sponsorship committee of the 2016 bill that didn’t make the ballot. After that we decided to try again.”

The group also elected a new chair, Owen said. “That was me.”

The new push, Measure 3, would legalize recreational cannabis for anyone 21 and older and prevent the criminal prosecution of any nonviolent cannabis activity. It would also create a process to automatically expunge prior cannabis convictions, as well as establish penalties for possession by and distribution to minors.

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Propaganda and Opposing Polls

Support for the measure is high, Owen said, pointing to recent polling data. A poll conducted in mid-October by The Kitchens Group found that 51% of North Dakota voters were in support of Measure 3. The survey findings also indicate that while there is strong support for the measure from voters under 50, the outcome hinges on older voters due to their historically high turnout rates.

“For an entirely grassroots-driven effort, we are doing fantastically,” Owen said. “We made the ballot on less than $10,000, and we didn’t pay a single petitioner. We’ve done this all by the books, all door-to-door, all pounding payment, and it’s showing. We have a lot of solid support on social media. We’re doing fantastic among the people. It’s just the politicians who don’t like us.”

That may be true according to the Kitchens Group poll, but other surveys cast doubt on the strong support Owen cited. A separate poll, conducted by TV stations KFYR and KVLY in partnership with Strategic Research Associates, found just 26% support for Measure 3, with 65% of respondents opposed. While the measure’s supporters have questioned the methodology of that poll, it’s still hard to say with certainty where public support stands.

Meanwhile, a a propaganda war is  raging on multiple fronts. In recent months, for example, the group North Dakotans Against the Legalization of Recreational Marijuana has popped up to oppose the measure. The group at first drew criticism from Fargo’s alt-weekly, the High Points Reader, for not having a website or providing any public information about their organization. While the group has since launched a website, it’s jam-packed with questionable claims.

In August the North Dakota Peace Officers Association passed a resolution at its annual convention to oppose Measure 3 and urge voters to do the same, The Jamestown Sun reported. The association’s main concerns revolve around DUIs and public consumption, but Owen told Leafly that these claims were exaggerated, and that Legalize ND is working with three attorneys to dispel these myths.

The North Dakota race has also drawn the attention of the nation’s leading anti-cannabis organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). According to the North Dakota Secretary of State, the group has dumped more than $115,000 into funding the opposition campaign.

(North Dakota Secretary of State)

But Measure 3 is starting to drawing support from elected officials. There’s a growing amount of legislative support from state elected officials, including state Reps. Rick Becker and Luke Simons, Republicans who both support adult-use legalization.

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Conservatives in favor of the measure largely approach it as an issue of personal freedom. And that freedom extends beyond the ability to legally grow and smoke cannabis.

Indigenous Rights

Measure 3 could empower indigenous people to reclaim their land through cannabis and hemp cultivation.

“I know for a fact there are some folks back home extremely interested in growing on [the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation] as well as possibly on both sides of Standing Rock,” indigenous environmental activist and hemp farmer Winona LaDuke told Leafly. Others remain reluctant to enter the market, LaDuke said, due to prohibition at the federal level.

The MHA Nation also overlaps into South Dakota, a state that doesn’t even have a medical cannabis program, making it that more difficult for marginalized people to even consider getting involved in the industry. In February 2018, the Rapid City Journal reported that medical marijuana failed to make the ballot this year because there weren’t enough valid signatures in support.

“I don’t reside on the reservation,” Peter Owlboy Jr. Owlboy, an indigenous voter, told Leafly. “If [measure 3] passes, it’ll be legal in the state and it still will be illegal on the reservation.”

Although he says there is strong support for Measure 3 in his community, folks who oppose the measure do so because they’ve had an issue with cannabis in the family, particularly with heavy use and as an expensive habit.

In addition to targeted bias from law enforcement, indigenous voters in North Dakota are widely disenfranchised. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Republican-backed voter ID law that requires voters to present identification that lists a valid residential address—which is impossible for many who live on rural reservations that have neither street names nor residential addresses.

While there is strong and adequate support for measure 3, only time will tell if the anti-cannabis propaganda is stronger.

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Adryan Corcione
Adryan Corcione
Adryan Corcione is a freelance journalist with bylines in Teen Vogue, Playboy, Vice, and more. They regularly write about cannabis and other drugs with a lens on policing.
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