State’s marijuana measure hazy

North Dakota voters overwhelmingly voted to approve Initiated Statutory Measure No. 5, known as the medical marijuana law, in the recent election. The measure passed with a 64 percent statewide majority, the same percentage as totaled in Ward County.

State law says initiated measures must be enacted within 30 days of passage, but sometimes that is just not possible. The medical marijuana statute certainly appears to be a long ways from being implemented. While voters saw only one paragraph about the measure on their ballot, the entire measure covers 33 pages and is filled with stipulations subject to various interpretations.

An example is, “Goods that are prepared in food establishments that are licensed facilities in response and that contain marijuana for medical use by a registered patient are not considered to be adulterated.”

That sentence is just one cause of concern for Arvy Smith, deputy state health officer. The North Dakota Department of Health is the agency responsible for implementing and regulating medical marijuana.

“The measure becomes law 30 days after passage but that’s not possible,” said Smith. “We’re busy looking at funding concerns and staffing. More importantly, we need some legal clarification with the measure. Some of those prevent us from moving forward. It will take a two-thirds vote of the next legislative session to make the corrections.”

“It’s going to be a free-for-all when it gets rolling,” said Oley Larson-R, Minot, a District 3 member of the state Senate. “It was like Obamacare. Let’s just pass it first and then we’ll fix it.”

Some states that have passed medical marijuana have done so with definite restrictions on usage. For example, in Minnesota, medical marijuana is limited to a single qualifying condition. Not so in North Dakota.

“The North Dakota law is very broad with dozens of conditions,” said Smith. “There’s an unlimited number of patients, caregivers, compassion centers and it allows for every form of smoking, inhaling, food, oil or whatever. We will do our best to implement the law the people passed. We are still determining the consequences that may stop us from moving forward.”

One of the consequences is the hiring of new employees to administer the program. Some estimates are that 30 or more new hires are needed. Really, though, there is no way to tell because North Dakota’s law is so much different from marijuana laws that have passed in other states.

Those expecting the law to be implemented soon may be in for a long wait, as long as three years in at least one other state. There’s other problems too, such as the North Dakota law being in conflict with federal law.

“It’s a federal narcotic,” said Larson. “I think it’s going to be implemented but our law is pretty loose. I thought it was for cancer and maybe four applications but, from what I’ve been reading, if you have a prescription from anywhere you can get it when it’s here.”

The North Dakota law is written so freely that is does not prohibit grade school children from using marijuana at school. Schools and other institutions have anti-smoking regulations to prohibit smoking at certain places, but medical marijuana can be dispensed in many different forms from tobacco-type products to oils.

According to the recently passed measure, medical marijuana would be distributed at “compassion” centers or by designated “caregivers.” A compassion center would be allowed to grow 1,000 marijuana plants and have no more than 3,500 ounces of useable marijuana “regardless of formulation.”

A caregiver would be limited to five patients, including the caregiver if applicable. Caregivers cannot operate within 40 miles of a compassion center. In addition, a compassion center cannot be located within 1,000 feet of a school.

Another issue that concerns State Health is that the current measure does not address the need for a prescription to qualify for medical marijuana. The measure only stipulates that a person be under a physician’s care and have a qualifying condition. As for administrators of compassion centers and caregivers, they are subject only to background tests to confirm they have not had any felony convictions.

While other states that have approved medical marijuana have placed limits on the number of places where marijuana and marijuana derivatives can be dispensed, North Dakota’s law has no such limit. Some cities could have multiple distribution centers and others few or none.

“We’re trying to expedite it,” explained Smith. “Legislative corrections will certainly delay it a little bit more. Remember, it takes nine months from seed to a full plant.”

Where the seeds and plants will come from, and how they will be monitored, is another concern.

“I don’t think there’s a testing facility in North Dakota to test marijuana for quality and mold and whatever else,” said Larson. “Also, we can’t touch the measure for seven years.”

Opening and operating a compassion center requires a certificate of registration issued by the State Health Department. All inventory must be carefully documented and compassion centers will be required to follow an abundance of security measures.

Initial estimates provided by the State Health Department say the department needs $2.7 million for the program during the next biennium, but the actual number remains unknown. However, there are disturbing numbers beyond program costs that are coming out of Colorado, which has enacted liberal marijuana laws. In that state incidents of children ingesting marijuana increased 268 percent, traffic fatalities doubled in three years and the mailing of marijuana outside the state increased 1,080 percent.

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