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ND Health Department: Medical marijuana could be available in 11 to 13 months

BISMARCK — Nearly a year to the day after North Dakotans voted to legalize medical marijuana, the state Department of Health said Monday, Nov. 6, that it has filed proposed rules governing the new program.

But the ballot measure's chief backer expressed frustration that the process is moving at a "snail's pace." Qualifying patients may be able to get medical marijuana by the end of next year, the Health Department said.

Public hearings on the rules will be held in mid-December at six locations across the state, including Fargo and Grand Forks. The department will consider comments from those hearings, along with written comments received by Dec. 26.

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

Meanwhile, the Health Department also said Jason Wahl has been named the interim director of its medical marijuana division, succeeding the now-retired Kenan Bullinger.

Wahl was the performance audit manager in the State Auditor's Office before reaching a separation agreement earlier this year. Lawmakers had eliminated his position through the agency's budget bill, but Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed the legislation over that move.

Wahl on Monday declined to comment on his departure from the auditor's office.

The Health Department hopes to have the medical marijuana rules presented to legislators sitting on the Administrative Rules Committee in March. If they are approved at that meeting, the earliest the rules could be finalized is April 1.

The Health Department won't accept applications for manufacturing facilities or dispensaries until at least April 1, the agency said in a news release. It's also not accepting applications from patients or designated caregivers "at this time."

The Health Department previously received 97 letters from those intending to apply to be a medical marijuana manufacturer or dispensary, signaling strong interest in the program.

Nearly 64 percent of voters approved last year's medical marijuana ballot measure. But legislators rewrote the law during this year's session, arguing that the version passed by voters was unworkable.

Rilie Ray Morgan, a Fargo man who led the Measure 5 effort, said he has heard from people who are eager for medical marijuana to become available. That includes someone involved in the petition drive who wants to see if it can help his mother with the pain and nausea that comes with cancer.

"We're frustrated by the process," Morgan said. "It's just more of the same delay, delay, delay, it seems like."

Burgum said in April that the product could be available for purchase in 12 to 18 months. The Health Department said Monday it could be within the next 11 to 13 months, although it acknowledged a number of factors could affect that timeline.

Wahl said the "vast majority" of the 50 pages of proposed rules relate to manufacturing facilities and dispensaries, known as "compassion centers." He said the rules need to be effective before applications are submitted.

"The rules are the requirements that applicants are going to have to follow," he said. "If the applicants don't know what the requirements are, it's going to be very hard for them to submit an application and the department would not have a means to be able to evaluate those applicants in a fair manner."

Wahl said the department withdrew a request for emergency rulemaking, which would have made the rules effective the day they were filed with Legislative Council. He cited "requirements within (state law) about what qualifies for emergency rules."

A schedule of next month's hearings, along with the proposed rules, can be found by clicking here.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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