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ND to track medical pot from 'seed to sale' to keep drugs out of wrong hands

The North Dakota State Procurement Office is currently accepting bids for a software tracking program that will track medical marijuana "seed to sale." Forum News Service file photo.

FARGO — North Dakota's entry into medical marijuana will require establishing a monitoring system that will enable officials to track the product from seed to final sale.

It will have to account for medical marijuana that initially will be grown at up to two operations and distributed through up to eight dispensaries around the state to an estimated 1,900 patients, which expected to double to about 3,800 for the 2019-21 biennium.

To do that, the state has invited bids from vendors to supply medical marijuana tracking software, an industry that is growing in tandem with the legal marijuana industry in the United States. North Dakota is one of 30 states that allow medical marijuana use.

Voters overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana use in 2016, and the North Dakota Legislature extensively revised the law during its 2017 session. Although the law took effect in April, the medical marijuana program is not expected to be implemented until late 2018, when administrative rules governing the program take effect.

Medical marijuana programs in the United States must operate in a murky regulatory environment. Medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law, although federal authorities don't enforce that law — provided that states tightly control their programs to prevent marijuana from unauthorized use.

"We don't want to threaten any of those parameters," said Jason Wahl, interim director of the North Dakota Department of Health Division of Medical Marijuana.

In a 2013 memo to federal prosecutors, the U.S. Department of Justice spelled out requirements for state medical marijuana programs that would prevent federal law enforcement action.

Among those requirements, states must prevent revenues from going to criminal enterprises, prevent legal marijuana activity from being used as a "cover or pretext" for trafficking illegal drugs, and prevent "drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use."

Software tracking systems are a critical component in preventing diversion of medical marijuana into the wrong hands. Only patients diagnosed with 14 qualifying diseases or conditions — including cancer, terminal illness, HIV/AIDS, Crohn's disease, epilepsy and glaucoma — will have access to medical cannabis.

The so-called "seed to sale" tracking systems typically use a barcode or radio tag serial number to enable all parts of a marijuana plant to be followed, from the growing center to the end user, including parts that are eliminated as waste.

Medical marijuana use has grown rapidly in recent years, as more states have legalized the drug. The U.S. medical and recreational marijuana industry is estimated at $8.1 billion, with medical marijuana comprising almost 70 percent of the total, according to IBISWorld.

"As the population ages, demand for industry services will grow, resulting in revenue growth," according to IBISWorld, which predicts the industry will reach $28.2 billion in revenues over the next five years.

The North Dakota State Procurement Office has solicited bids for a software tracking program. The deadline for submission is Friday, Jan. 5. The bid review process will include vendor demonstrations, with a selection expected in early February.

Tricia Opp, a state procurement officer, said she can't divulge the number of prospective bidders or say anything about the level of interest in bidding for the marijuana tracking system because the process remains pending.

"It's still a closed process until we make a decision," she said.

The winner will be selected on the basis of information technology, support and customer service, experience and qualifications, as well as cost.

Last year, an early cost estimate by state officials predicted security, office equipment and a registry for the medical marijuana program would cost $1.4 million. No current estimate for the cost of the tracking system was available.

Minnesota, which passed a law allowing medical marijuana in 2014, does not maintain the seed-to-sale tracking system. That role is the responsibility of medical marijuana manufacturers, although the state maintains the patient registry for medical cannabis.

"We use the registry for enrolling patients, caregivers and health care providers," said Doug Schultz, an information officer with the Minnesota Department of Health. "But this is not used for inventory tracking."

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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