North Dakota Offers Path to Pardons for Low-Level Marijuana Convictions

With support from the state’s Republican governor, North Dakota moved on Wednesday to allow thousands of individuals to potentially wipe their slate clean of low-level marijuana convictions.

The state’s pardon advisory board unanimously approved the policy change, clearing the way for those residents to apply for a pardon for such convictions and emerge with a clear record if they avoid committing a crime for the next five years. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, both Republicans, support the move.

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

Burgum, who is in his first term after winning election in 2016, added that the new policy could “address our state’s workforce shortage and grow the economy,” given that such convictions have proven problematic for many individuals applying for jobs. 

“There are a lot of North Dakotans who have this issue,” Stenehjem said, as quoted by the Associated Press. “The burden shouldn’t be something that person has to carry around forever.”

Stenehjem said that, should the pardon get approved, the policy “totally removes a conviction; totally removes guilt.” As many as 175,000 North Dakotans who were dealt such convictions could be eligible under the new policy. The new policy makes the process more streamlined and less burdensome than it is currently. Individuals seeking a pardon will now be able to fill out a one-and-a-half page application online completely free of charge. The deadline for the first round of applications is August 10. 

Stenehjem supports decriminalization for pot, but remains opposed to legalization for recreational use. In May, Burgum quietly signed a bill into law that relaxed penalties for small amounts of marijuana possession. Under the new law, those busted for the first time for possession of up to a half an ounce of marijuana or paraphernalia will face a criminal infraction, rather than a misdemeanor. The punishment carries a fine of as much as $1000, but crucially, no jail time. 

Those facing subsequent charges could face up to a year of jail time, however. Those new provisions take effect on August 1. The Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group, said the reclassification was “ far from ideal, but it is a substantial step in the right direction.”

North Dakota opened its first medical marijuana dispensary earlier this year, and there are plans for more to open soon. The changes could represent a demarcation point in how the state deals with marijuana. The state has long taken a stringent position on pot use. In 2016, according to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, North Dakota ranked sixth in the nation in per capita arrests for marijuana possession.

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