North Dakota clears way for pardons on marijuana offenses

Thursday, July 11, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s pardon advisory board on Wednesday unanimously backed a policy change that will allow people with low-level marijuana convictions to apply for pardons and have their records wiped clean if they don’t commit another crime for five years.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem both support the change, which brings North Dakota in line with some other states and cities that have been trying to fix problems that such past convictions have caused for people trying to find jobs and housing.

North Dakota’s change doesn’t go as far as some others that automatically dismissed or pardoned convictions. Instead, people applying for pardons would have to fill out an online form on the corrections department’s website. The deadline for the first round of applications is Aug. 10. It costs nothing to apply.

Stenehjem said as many as 175,000 marijuana convictions over several decades could be eligible.

“There are a lot of North Dakotans who have this issue,” he said. “The burden shouldn’t be something that person has to carry around forever.”

The new policy “totally removes a conviction; totally removes guilt” if the pardon is approved, Stenehjem said. People then could “honestly say ‘no’” if asked if they have had a previous pot conviction, he said.

Burgum said in a statement that the policy change could help “address our state’s workforce shortage and grow the economy.”

“By destigmatizing these minor and, in many cases, distant offenses, we can give individuals a second chance at a successful, healthy and productive life,” he said.

North Dakota already allows people to apply for a pardon to remove marijuana-related offenses from their records but the process in onerous, Stenehjem said. The new policy involves filling out a 1 ½-page form that will be reviewed by law enforcement before being placed on the pardon board’s agenda. Applications may then be approved in batches, instead of individually.

Stenehjem, who does not support legalizing recreational pot, has long backed legislation that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Lawmakers this year killed legislation that sought to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and instead approved a bill that no long makes possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana a criminal misdemeanor. It now is considered an infraction that carries a $200 fine.

Larger amounts are considered a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

North Dakota voters approved medical marijuana in 2016 but rejected a measure last year 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.