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Medical marijuana supporters challenge proposed changes to new North Dakota law

BISMARCK - Linda Kersten called marijuana a "miracle."The Newburg, N.D., resident recalled how her adult daughter struggled with treatments for colon cancer that caused aches, pains and extreme nausea. But almost immediately after smoking marijua...

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, testifies in favor of a bill to rewrite much of the North Dakota's medical marijuana law Wednesday, Feb. 8 2017. John Hageman/Forum News Service
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, testifies in favor of a bill to rewrite much of the North Dakota's medical marijuana law Wednesday, Feb. 8 2017. John Hageman/Forum News Service

BISMARCK - Linda Kersten called marijuana a "miracle."

The Newburg, N.D., resident recalled how her adult daughter struggled with treatments for colon cancer that caused aches, pains and extreme nausea. But almost immediately after smoking marijuana, she felt well enough to take a walk around the block.

With the support of people like Kersten, North Dakota legalized medical marijuana during November's election. She came before the Senate Human Services Committee Wednesday, Feb. 8 to oppose proposed changes to the law, such as limiting usable forms of marijuana to liquids and pills.

"You have decided for her and others that smoking will remain illegal," Kersten said in prepared remarks. "What does it matter which route is used it get the drug into the body?"

Supporters of the initiated measure that resulted in the passage of the Compassionate Care Act have argued Senate Bill 2344 makes too many changes to the law voters chose to put on the books.

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But the House and Senate majority leaders said Wednesday the amendments are needed to provide adequate regulations for a drug that remains illegal under federal law. Provisions of the North Dakota law, which passed with almost 64 percent voting in its favor, are on hold after the passage of separate legislation aimed at giving state agencies time to develop regulations.

Arvy Smith, the acting director of the North Dakota Department of Health, said the agency is looking at an expedited rulemaking process, but medical marijuana may not be available for another year.

The bill's primary sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, defended the legislation. He said some of the changes were needed to better align with existing current state law, adding that lawmakers are seeking to make sure patients are given a safe product.

"The goal is not to stop this," Wardner said. "We need to do it in a responsible way."

Senate Bill 2344 removes a section of law that allows qualified patients who live more than 40 miles from a licensed facility to cultivate up to eight marijuana plants. It also says a qualified patient may purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana in a 30-day period, compared to the three ounces that a "compassion center" may dispense to a patient in a two-week period under current law.

The bill allows for four manufacturing centers and eight dispensaries, Wardner said, but the Health Department may register additional dispensaries if it determines more are needed to increase access. It also adds decriminalization language that was left out of the original law.

"If a person is using medical marijuana legally, we need to ensure that they not be charged with a criminal violation," Wardner said.

The bill sets the certification fee for a compassion center, which is defined as a manufacturing facility or dispensary, at no more than $100,000, compared with $25,000 under current law.

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Much of the 81-page bill is taken up with crossed-out language from the law voters passed in November, and some who testified Wednesday said lawmakers should work to pass a law that's at least closer to what the electorate approved.

Eric Johnson of Minot, who said he's looking to get into the industry, said the original measure may not have been perfect but it didn't need an overhaul. He said having eight dispensaries spread across the state will still mean some people will have to travel long distances for the product.

"When I voted 'yes' on Measure 5, I knew exactly what I was voting for and anyone who says otherwise is insulting intelligence of their constituents," Johnson said. "Please support the bill that was voted on by the people."

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, testifies in favor of a bill to rewrite much of the North Dakota's medical marijuana law Wednesday, Feb. 8 2017. John Hageman/Forum News Service
Arvy Smith, acting director of the North Dakota Department of Health, testifies to the Senate Human Services Committee Feb. 8, 2017 on a bill to amend much of the state's medical marijuana law. John Hageman/Forum News Service

Related Topics: RICH WARDNER
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