Med marijuana measure expands Health Dept. duties

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Medical marijuana operators don't fear possible shut down

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A proposal to allow North Dakotans to use marijuana as medicine puts the Health Department in charge of vetting the business plans of dispensaries, checking home pot gardens and reviewing the drug’s labeling and potency.

The citizen initiative gives doctors the option of deciding whether to prescribe marijuana as a remedy for pain and nausea. Hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities could ban marijuana smoking and refuse to store or provide the drug for patients, but could not ban marijuana brownies and other forms of consumption.

Terry Dwelle, the Health Department’s chief administrator, said Wednesday the agency would explore the proposal’s potential budget effects.

“There would be a significant impact on the Health Department, and on the resources we would have to put into this,” Dwelle said. “This will be a choice the people of North Dakota will need to make.”

Supporters of the medical marijuana initiative turned in about 20,000 signatures to Secretary of State Al Jaeger this week, seeking to put the proposed state law directly on the November ballot. Jaeger has about a month to review the petition, which needs at least 13,452 valid signatures from North Dakota voters to qualify for a statewide vote.

Arvy Smith, the Health Department’s deputy state health officer, said the agency would not be likely to start analyzing the proposal’s potential impact until late September, after the department has finished work on its next two-year budget.

“There can be some significant differences in the type and amount of regulation that’s needed, depending on the language of the bill, and we’re just not anywhere near that type of analysis yet,” Smith said.

The proposed initiative blends elements of medical marijuana laws in the 17 states that allow doctors to recommend it, said Dave Schwartz, the campaign’s director.

It puts the Health Department in charge of licensing dispensaries and registering eligible marijuana users, who would be allowed to grow a limited amount of pot for their own use and possess up to 2.5 ounces at a time. The licensing process would include background checks of medical marijuana providers and a review of their business plans.

Marijuana would be sold only through licensed dispensaries, and the initiative limits their number to eight — one each in Burleigh, Cass, Grand Forks, Morton, Stark, Stutsman, Ward and Williams counties.

It says the department would be responsible for inspecting marijuana growing operations, including home gardens, as well as testing the drug’s potency and making sure it is accurately packaged and labeled. The agency also would have to prepare an annual report detailing the number of eligible users, the medical conditions being treated and the number of licensed caregivers, who may grow and supply marijuana to as many as five patients.

The Legislature would have the authority to ban medical marijuana use on school buses and grounds and in prisons, and the smoking of marijuana in public places.

The proposed measure says hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities couldn’t prohibit the drug’s use unless it would cause the facility to lose federal benefits. However, those facilities may ban marijuana smoking and cannot be required to store or supply the drug, the measure says.

Courtney McDonald Koebele, director of the North Dakota Medical Association, and Shelly Peterson, director of a group that represents North Dakota nursing homes, said Wednesday their boards would decide later whether to take a position.

Under the proposed law, medical marijuana could not be used legally without a doctor’s recommendation.

“If (marijuana) becomes available, I can’t imagine that we would interfere with their right, as long as there are physician orders,” Peterson said.


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