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ND cities, counties start working on zoning rules for medical marijuana dispensaries

This map from the North Dakota Department of Health shows the eight regions where medical marijuana dispensaries could be located. Residents from anywhere in the state could purchase medical marijuana at any dispensary if they are registered with the Department of Health for the program. Submitted photo.

JAMESTOWN, N.D.—Jamestown and Dickinson are in the center of one of the eight regions where medical marijuana dispensaries could be opened and they are working on accommodating the "comfort care centers."

Zoning ordinances will need to be changed for the dispensaries as one of the first steps.

Other regions include Fargo, Bismarck/Mandan, Grand Forks, Minot, Williston and Devils Lake. To be considered for a license, proposed dispensaries would have to be within 50 miles of one of the cities listed.

"Medical marijuana dispensaries are the locations where registered qualifying patients and registered designated caregivers will be able to purchase usable marijuana under the state's medical marijuana program," said Mylynn Tufte, state health officer, in an emailed press release.

The department of health is still working through the licensing process.

"The open application period (for dispensaries) is still several months away," said Jason Wahl, interim director of the Division of Medical Marijuana in the North Dakota Department of Health.

"There are certain approvals that have to take place."

One of the approvals an applicant will need before making an application to the state is proof of compliance with local zoning laws.

At this time, the zoning ordinances of the city of Jamestown and Stutsman County do not include any reference to where a potential dispensary could legally be located.

"It is still a gray area," said Jamestown Mayor Katie Andersen. "We did not change any ordinances to specify what zoning it (a medical marijuana business) would fit in."

Jamison Veil, Jamestown city assessor and zoning administrator, said very few cities in North Dakota have a specific zoning requirement for medical marijuana.

"We do have manufacturing, industrial and commercial zoned areas," he said. "We have nothing that says for sure where it (medical marijuana) would fit in those zones."

Andersen said city staff has had informal discussions but the topic has not advanced it to the City Council.

"We're waiting for some guidance from the state about what these facilities will be like," she said.

Nicole Meland, interim auditor and chief operating officer of Stutsman County, said county staff prepared a draft ordinance that had not yet been reviewed by the Stutsman County state's attorney or presented to the County Commission for review.

"We want it to go to the state's attorney within the next two weeks," she said.

The initial draft of the Stutsman County ordinance is based on one that's already in place in McKenzie County in western North Dakota. That ordinance includes the zoning categories where a medical marijuana business could locate along with required security measures and distances the business would have to be from properties such as schools, churches, parks and private residences.

Dickinson is also readying to become one of eight medical marijuana dispensary sites.

"We have had people express interest in becoming a dispensary," Shawn Kessel, Dickinson city administrator, said.While there is a "robust state process" in place for becoming a licensed dispensary, the city is preparing its own ordinances for such a business.

"We are looking at a two-prong process," Kessel said. "We'd issue a shared use permit to make sure the location is in the zoning district that the commission prefers, and we'd also issue a license on an annual basis to make sure there is compliance with regularity to local city ordinance."

Discussions continue about where a dispensary would be located.

"There's some differences of opinion with regard to exact location," Kessel said. "One of the concerns of course is it is medical marijuana. There are a lot of preconceived notions about its use and the potential for abuse as this process rolls itself out, but there's also the recognition that this is for medical uses and there may be a desire, depending on how much traffic is involved, to locate it in a retail area."

He added, "It should be operated like a pharmacy."

Another concern for the city is security, Kessel said.

"It's still regulated from a federal perspective. Banking for these operations is difficult," he said. "It's a cash business. We're concerned about security issues that might surround the facility itself and the neighboring facilities."

It is the city's role, Kessel explained, to make sure it has policies in place and is ready to facilitate such a business.

"We're going to create an ordinance that allows (dispensaries) to operate," he said. "The vast majority of residents voted and said they wanted them, they wanted medical marijuana, so out of respect for those people who voted for it, the Legislature has produced a process and we have to be respectful of that process."

"We will work to make sure the commission has an ordinance in front of it," Kessel said, "and can adopt something prior to the state actually issuing comfort care licenses."

Wahl said the application process for dispensaries may occur this summer.

First, the administrative rules for the medical marijuana program must be approved at the state level. That is anticipated by March 12, he said.

"Then we license the manufacturing facilities," Wahl said.

The state will license up to two manufacturing or growing facilities in North Dakota. All medical marijuana and related products have to be manufactured or produced in those facilities.

Timing for the licensing of distribution facilities will be determined by when the manufacturing facilities are licensed, operational and have product available, Wahl said.

"We anticipate usable marijuana for the dispensaries in the October, November or December timeframe," Wahl said.

Andersen said Jamestown officials had not had any discussions on encouraging or discouraging medical marijuana operations in the city.

"We need to make sure we don't discriminate against any individual," she said, meaning any ordinance could not discriminate against any group or individual attempting to operate a legal medical marijuana dispensary.

Voters in Stutsman County approved medical marijuana by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in a referendum vote in 2016.

"It will exist," Andersen said. "One of the great things about this is North Dakota is doing it right."