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Stark County begins planning for medical marijuana

Close Up Marijuana Bud and Leaves on Indoor Plant

North Dakotans passed a ballot measure to legalize Medical Marijuana in the state over a year ago with 59 percent of Stark County voters supporting legalization. Now, Stark County is beginning to draft an ordinance that could eventually bring medical marijuana to the area.

County planner Steve Josephson said that it will probably be a year or so before any medical marijuana is produced or sold in the state, but he thinks the county should be prepared when the state Department of Health (NDDoT) finalizes their rules on the medicinal plant. Josephson is preparing the county's first draft of an ordinance on medical marijuana and plans to present it to the county planning and zoning commission when they meet in late December.

"We're drafting an ordinance so we've got something on the books," Josephson said. "You've got a county of 43,000 people (in Stark County), a workforce here and a lot of land that is zoned industrial, I would think that somebody would have some interest in locating (a manufacturing or retail center) here."

Last spring, the North Dakota state legislature repealed the ballot measure passed by voters and passed the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act to place more restrictions on how medical marijuana would be regulated. The law defines the 17 medical conditions that could qualify for medical marijuana and says that eight retail locations and two manufacturing centers will be allowed in the state. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R-District 37) was a primary sponsor on the medical marijuana legislation

"We're going to do what the people voted for they wanted medical marijuana and we're going to make sure that they get good quality medical marijuana to patients who need it," Wardner told radio host Dan Wogsland in February while working on the bill. "We need to ensure that the product is developed safely and securely."

The NDDoH released proposed rules in November regarding the regulation of medical marijuana. The 50-page document outlines everything from security protocols, testing requirements and the application processes for potential facilities.

"The NDDoH has thoughtfully crafted these rules to ensure patient safety, product safety, and public safety," State Health Officer Mylynn Tufte said in a press release. "The department is committed to a transparent process and we welcome the public's input on the proposed rules."

The NDDoH Medical Marijuana Division is holding public hearings next week on the proposed rules. They are holding the hearings in six cities across the state including one on Monday afternoon in Williston and one Wednesday afternoon in Bismarck. Hearings will also be held in Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and Belcourt.

Josephson said that there are a number of reasons why regulating medical marijuana is particularly challenging. The fact that the federal government currently classifies marijuana as a class 1 drug, meaning that the medical use of marijuana is not allowed federally. Because of this, many banks are barred from doing business with marijuana retailers.

"You can't take checks, you can't get credit cards, you can't bank because it's considered illegal. Everything is on a cash only basis," Josephson said. "(There is) possible criminal activity because you are going to have a place with a lot of cash on hand and a product that people would be interested in stealing and selling illegally."

Josephson said that after the state rules are put into effect, the county can choose to place stricter standards on regulating medical marijuana.

"Local communities can always make it more stringent than the state," Josephson said. Josephson said he is looking into how the county will draft standards around permitting, zoning and land-use issues.

He isn't quite sure yet how receptive the county, other businesses or wider public will be in opening a medical marijuana manufacturing or retail outlet in Stark County but he thinks that it could potentially become a source of revenue for the area.

"It may well be one of those things that counties compete for economic development," Josephson said.

Grady McGregor

Grady McGregor is a city and state politics reporter for The Dickinson Press. He joined The Press in July 2017.

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