State legislators ignore the will of the people by postponing medical marijuana, critics say 

By C.S. Hagen
FARGO – State politicians are playing an exclusive game of ‘kick the can’ with Measure 5, or the North Dakota Medical Marijuana Initiative, which was approved overwhelmingly in every voting district in the state last November.

The people of North Dakota apparently are not invited to play, critics say.  

Nearly 80 days after the measure’s passing, the Peace Garden State suspended parts and postponed the entire bill, according to Senate Bill 2154. The bill sat on Governor Doug Burgum’s desk on Monday, January 23, awaiting his signature.

Those hoping for the state to implement the law are angered, saying the state is dragging its feet. Others say state bureaucrats think they know better than their constituencies. The state says it’s mostly a matter of semantics. Either way, Measure 5 was supposed to be state law 30 days after the November election.

“They’re going to kick the can down the road, and if it doesn’t get done by July 31, then it will go to Biennium, the next legislative session, so essentially they’ve kicked the can down the road for two years,” the measure’s co-author, Riley Ray Morgan, said. He initiated the measure, also known as the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act, to offer those suffering from seizures, chronic pain from cancer, glaucoma, HIV, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, and other illnesses an alternative to big pharmaceutical prescription painkillers.

“It’s ridiculous. They’re trying to dumb this down and gut it.”

“There are a lot of things on the bill that were conflicting,” North Dakota Department of Health Public Information Officer Jennifer L. Skojd said of Measure 5. The North Dakota Department of Health cited 13 issues with the measure’s wording that gave state legislation pause, including possible decriminalization for possession of marijuana to current federal regulations.

Skojd understands how many can think the state is dragging its feet, but she stressed that the bill’s language and the lack of appropriations made it impossible for her department to take further steps. “So we were just patiently waiting until they said here is your funding for it.”

Some of the issues the North Dakota Department of Health raised included proper packaging, issues, and in what forms medical marijuana should be offered. Some of the issues are valid, Morgan said, but most can easily be rectified, such as setting legal age limits for purchasing marijuana.

Senator Rich Wardner, R-N.D., is one of the introducers of the bill and the bill’s main sponsor. He said there are no conspiracies within the North Dakota Legislature pertaining to Measure 5.

“Nobody is dragging their feet,” Wardner said. “We’re trying to get it done as quickly as possible. The bottom line is to give the health department time to get their people and rules in line to regulate medical marijuana.”

Some states that have legalized medical marijuana have taken up to two years to finalize regulations, Wardner said. Since the measure’s passing, the North Dakota Health Department and the State’s Attorney General’s office have worked hard at drafting the bill, he said.

“They’re just not ready yet. We have a bill written and we’re going over it, double checking it, and they just need until July 31 to get it all in place. You’re going to get medical marijuana, and you’re going to get nothing more and nothing less. We are going to make sure people get medical marijuana because that’s what this is all about.”

Jason Spiess, a longtime researcher and writer on the cannabis issue, isn’t convinced of the senator’s claims.

“In my opinion, there’s a culture there that does not want this particular vein of industry to make its way into North Dakota,” Spiess said.  

Prior to Measure 5’s passing, Spiess assisted several national media outlets with cannabis election features – including Marijuana Venture magazine and The Cannabis Caucus 2016.  He interviewed more than 60 people working in law enforcement, marijuana dispensaries, government, and finance from around the country, and found that not one person believed medical marijuana was causing more harm than good.

“It really appears like the public officials really don’t care what the people want, and they are dragging their feet,” Spiess said. “In my opinion, they do not want this industry in the state. They will deny it, but I tend to go with actions over words.”

As an owner of The Crude Life Media Network, Spiess also writes a weekly energy column for the Bismarck Tribune, and frequently writes for national magazines on oil and gas issues. Cannabis caught this writer’s mind last year, not specifically as a medical treatment, but perhaps as an alternative and lucrative industry for the state.

Tinctures at Choice Organics, Fort Collins, Colorado – photo provided by Jason Spiess

“It’s sad that there are people in severe pain and entrepreneurs waiting to start new businesses, yet the the state’s political mindset is that they know better than the majority of North Dakotans,” Spiess said. “Measure 5 received so many votes it actually became a mandate, yet the public officials are playing politics with it.  I feel sorry for the voters that there is no oversight or accountability with North Dakota’s elected officials.”

Spiess continued with his displeasure towards the handling of the mandated measure.

“This is not about smoking pot, it’s about how elected officials are bumbling this too. It’s about them not listening to the people, being secretive and playing petty politics,” Spiess said. “To me, that’s the big story with Measure 5. It is a mandate, and now the politicians are trying to double speak their way out of it.”

Although marijuana in any form is still considered illegal by the federal government, North Dakota’s reputation for listening to big brother’s wishes should not be considered a reason for the state’s hesitancy on Measure 5, according to Spiess. A state dominated by industry, especially agriculture and energy, North Dakota and the federal government often butt heads in court. North Dakota sues the federal government so much that in June 2015, the state passed House Bill 1432, effectively creating a slush fund of $1.5 million for suing the federal government.

Marty Riske, who ran on the Libertarian ticket for governor in 2016, said he waited inside the capitol building in Bismarck and wanted to participate in the Senate hearing for the measure’s institution. He arrived at 8:30 a.m., but the proposal to postpone came and went before he was alerted.

“Nobody knew this thing was happening, that I knew,” Riske said. “I was there, I could have been there and testified. 

Riske added that he believes North Dakota legislators want tight control, funneling profits to where they want.

“For some reason the bureaucracy feels they have to invent everything,” Riske said. “They have to do everything from ground zero. This is a measure of the control they want to have over it. They’re trying to figure out who gets the money from what’s going on. It’s a money game.”

Morgan and Riske are both concerned that politicians will kick the cannabis can until loopholes can be found to circumnavigate the will of the people, or that funding for the measure will be buried inside a massive bill and then go unfunded. Morgan expressed further concern by saying legislators do not relish the idea that a medical cannabis user or a surrogate grower would be allowed to grow the plant for medicinal uses under the current bill. The state wants total control over the trade, Morgan said.

“You’re going to have medical cannabis for the rich, and nobody else,” Morgan said. “If you can grow it at home, or a surrogate grower can grow it for you, it won’t cost you $800 a month.”

Skojd understands local anger pertaining to the postponement.

“From a high level view I can see why people would think that,” Skojd said. “There is a lot of suspicion of government these days, and I can see why somebody might think that.”

For now, the implementation of medical marijuana is out of the North Dakota Department of Health’s hands, Skojd said. No monies have been allocated, or will be allotted for at least the next six months.

“It needs to be a working measure that is strong and well worded, and easy to understand for everybody. I definitely personally feel for those people who are in pain, or suffering and hoping this will alleviate that for them, none of us in our department want to see people suffer. At the same time we are looking forward to something that is really solid, and something we can work with.”

Senator Erin Oban D-N.D., said the bill was supported by Republicans and Democrats alike.

“It is rare I put trust in the motives of certain legislative leaders in this place, but not only was this bill supported by the Dem-NPL legislative leaders, it has unanimous support of the Senate Human Services Committee.”

Oban further reported the Health Department is working on a bill that would set limitations on the number of growers, dispensers, and potency of medical marijuana.

“I will be the first to stand with my district and every other of the 47 legislative districts in this state that passed Measure 5 if there are political motives to undermine the voters,” Oban said.

Morgan, a stockbroker who suffers from debilitating pain including drop foot, said the state’s response to the measure has left him with two choices.

“We can obviously take them to court,” Morgan said. “However, there is another option, which is to start another initiated measure to get things squared away for the legislature.”  

The governor’s office was not prepared to make a statement on the issue as Burgum has three days to sign the bill, Mike Nowatzki, communications director for the governor’s office, said, despite the fact Burgum said on multiple occasions during his gubernatorial campaign that if Measure 5 passed, he would sign it into law immediately.

Representatives Al Carlson, Corey Mock, Wardner, and Senator Joan Heckaman introduced the bill to postpone any immediate decisions on the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act. Carlson and Heckaman did not respond to interview requests nor returned telephone calls.

Earlier in January, the state legislature introduced other bills including House Bill 1203 hoping to legalize the unintentional running down and killing of individuals obstructing vehicular traffic on public roads, House Bill 1151 which would exempt oil companies from reporting spills less than 420 gallons, House Bill 1304, which attempted to make illegal the wearing of ski masks on public roads in North Dakota, and Senate Bill 2315 was also introduced recently, an act that proposes the legalization of killing a violent intruder even if escape was possible or when trying to escape arrest after committing a violent felony.  

In addition, Carlson, also the Republican House Majority Leader, praised Confederate soldiers on Martin Luther King Day during a speech, and Senator John Hoeven R-N.D. asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to clear the protesters camped against the Dakota Access Pipeline outside of Cannon Ball.