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ND medical marijuana still months away with no set timeline, despite deadline

FARGO -- North Dakota's new medical marijuana law will not take effect on Thursday, Dec. 8 -- the date specified by law -- because officials are grappling with the measure's complexity and sometimes contradictory provisions.

Medical marijuana. REUTERS
Leaves of marijuana plants to extract the hemp fiber that is often used in traditional Japanese clothes and accessories, are seen at Japan's largest legal marijuana farm in Kanuma, Tochigi prefecture, Japan July 5, 2016. Picture taken July 5, 2016. REUTERS/Issei Kato

FARGO - North Dakota's new medical marijuana law will not take effect on Thursday, Dec. 8 - the date specified by law - because officials are grappling with the measure's complexity and sometimes contradictory provisions.

"We have not committed to any time frame yet," said Arvy Smith, the deputy director of the North Dakota Department of Health, which is implementing the law passed by voters in the Nov. 8 election.

Other states that have launched medical marijuana programs have taken anywhere from 18 months to as many as two, four or even six years, she said. "Hopefully we will not be that far out."

It's likely that the medical marijuana program won't be available until after the North Dakota Legislature, which convenes in January, can pass clarifying legislation, Smith said. Officials have found "redundant and conflicting language" that needs to be addressed.

"We'd like to fix the things that aren't clear and move forward," she said.

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Implementation likely will be rolled out in phases, with no enforcement and regulation until the law is fully implemented, Smith said.

There also are many practical considerations involved in establishing dispensaries - called compassionate care centers in the law - as well as growing operations, certifying caregivers as well as patients.

For instance, It takes up to nine months to turn a seedling into a mature marijuana plant, Smith said.

A leading proponent of North Dakota's medical marijuana law said he understands the need for a delay - up to a point.

"Of course we're truly disappointed," said Ray Morgan of Fargo, who helped spearhead the initiative. The health department is understaffed and dealing with budget cuts, he said.

"I know there are people suffering from ailments who want access to medical marijuana right away," said Morgan, who suffers from chronic pain following back surgery.

Still, he believes they could roll out at least parts of the law, especially the provisions dealing with the application process so patients can become certified. Those patients then would be ready as soon as the program becomes effective, Morgan said.

"We really, really think that they are dragging their feet just a little bit," he said.

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Most of North Dakota's law was borrowed from Delaware's medical marijuana law, a program that can serve as an obvious model, Morgan said. A few minor provisions were gleaned from medical marijuana laws in Montana and Arizona.

"There wasn't much mixing and matching," he said. "They don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Officials are looking for ways to launch the medical marijuana program as cost-effectively as possible, Smith said. Health officials' first estimated it would cost $8.7 million for the first biennium, with ongoing costs of $7.3 million and one-time expenditures of $1.4 million.

Funding will be required to hire staff to register qualifying patients and license designated caregivers and dispensaries. Staff also will be needed to monitor and enforce the law and to run an information management system to track data required to be reported annually as well as a verification system for caregivers and law enforcement.

To begin with, Morgan expects there would be dispensaries in Bismarck and Fargo. The law permits those who are not within 40 miles of a dispensary to grow their own medical marijuana or obtain it from a certified caregiver.

The cost of establishing a couple of dispensaries would be in the "$2.5 million range," with each additional site costing around $200,000, said Morgan, a Fargo financial adviser.

Related Topics: HEALTH
Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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