With voters' approval, the North Dakota medical marijuana initiative would make it legal for residents to possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana for treatment purposes. Pictured: Mile High Green Cross is a recreational and medical marijuana dispensary serving the greater Denver area. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

Going for it: North Dakota medical marijuana backers submit signatures

BISMARCK, N.D. — Supporters of a ballot initiative campaign that would legalize marijuana for medical purposes turned in about 17,600 signatures Monday, saying they were confident their efforts would put the issue to a statewide vote.

Backers of the so-called North Dakota Compassionate Care Act must have 13,500 qualified signatures to put it to a statewide vote in the Nov. 8 general election. Secretary of State Al Jaeger has about one month to decide whether the petitions are sufficient.

“Families worked very hard to get this on the ballot,” said Mary Rennich, of Bismarck, who was one of about a dozen people who turned in the signatures on Monday at the state Capitol in Bismarck. She said her 25-year-old son suffers from epileptic seizures and hoped that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes would help.

With voters’ approval, the initiative would make it legal for North Dakota residents to possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana for medical purposes. It says those who qualify could obtain the drug from a state-licensed dispensary or grow a limited supply for personal use.

North Dakota’s Republican-led House rejected a bipartisan measure last year to legalize medical marijuana. People suffering chronic pain and parents of critically ill children pleaded with lawmakers to pass the measure, while state law enforcement and health officials said doing so would be a threat to public health and safety and would cost the state about $2 million a year to oversee.

Citizen initiatives allow residents to bypass lawmakers by getting proposed state laws and constitutional amendments on voter ballots if they gather enough signatures from supportive voters.

The medical marijuana petition is separate from an effort to make it legal to grow, possess, use and distribute marijuana for people 21 and older. Supporters of that campaign said they did not obtain the required number of signatures by Monday’s deadline.

“We only got about 80 percent of what we needed,” said Tony Mangnall of Fargo, chairman of the North Dakota Libertarian Party, which endorsed the proposed initiative. “We’re gearing up for another run for 2018.”

The medical marijuana initiative would allow someone who suffers from a debilitating illness to use marijuana with a doctor’s permission. It lists cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, glaucoma and other illnesses as examples of debilitating conditions. It prohibits smoking marijuana in public and does not exempt medical marijuana users from laws against driving while impaired.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said 25 states have laws allowing medical marijuana. But it is still illegal at the federal level, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved the drug’s medicinal use.

Supporters of a medical marijuana ballot measure in South Dakota have so far been unsuccessful in getting the measure before voters for the 2016 election. Secretary of State Shantel Krebs’ office rejected the initiative because backers didn’t turn in enough valid signatures to appear on the ballot.

Rilie Ray Morgan, a Fargo financial planner heading the effort in North Dakota, said the initiative was crafted using some other states’ legislation as a template.

The initiative also is similar to one that appeared on the statewide ballot in 2012 but was denied by the state Supreme Court after Secretary of State Jaeger found evidence that some North Dakota State University football players forged signatures after they were hired and paid to circulate the petition.

Backers of the initiative said 107 people from across the state collected signatures at no cost.