The agency said the cost to administer a North Dakota medical marijuana program in the first two-year budget cycle would be $8.7 million, including $1.4 million in startup costs. Pictured: In this Sept. 16, 2015 file photo, marijuana for sale is kept in jars for customers to sample smells, on opening day of a new outlet of the Colorado Harvest Company recreational marijuana stores, in Aurora, Colorado. (Brennan Linsley, The Associated Press)

Why North Dakota’s health officials are not excited about medical marijuana

A Fargo financial planner said the agency's medical marijuana cost estimates 'overblown' and an attempt to derail the effort to legalize

BISMARCK, N.D. — It would cost North Dakota’s Health Department more than $3.5 million a year and a small army of workers to regulate medical marijuana if the issue appears on the November ballot and voters approve it, according to an analysis by the agency.

The analysis was released late Wednesday, a few hours after Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple called a special session of the North Dakota Legislature to address a $310 million shortfall to the state treasury, which may require cuts to the Health Department and other agencies.

Rilie Ray Morgan, a Fargo financial planner who is heading the effort to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, called the estimates “overblown” and an attempt to derail the effort in a budget-challenged state, a charge the agency denies.

“Everybody knows the state is struggling financially,” said Morgan, who suffers from chronic back pain and would like the option of using the drug for pain relief. “Obviously, I don’t believe the state is in favor of this and I believe they are grossly overinflating the amount of money and manpower that will be needed.”

Supporters of the so-called North Dakota Compassionate Care Act turned in about 17,600 signatures Monday. Backers must have 13,500 qualified signatures to put it to a statewide vote in the Nov. 8 general election. Secretary of State Al Jaeger has about one month to decide whether the petitions are sufficient.

The Health Department neither supports nor opposes the initiated measure, said Brenda Weisz, the agency’s accounting director and author of the analysis. She and agency spokeswoman Colleen Reinke said the review was done to provide “factual” information about the measure and its costs.

The agency said the cost to administer a medical marijuana program in the first two-year budget cycle would be $8.7 million, including $1.4 million in startup costs. Thereafter, the cost would be about $7.3 million every two years and would require 32 additional full-time employees.

With voters’ approval, the initiative would make it legal for North Dakota residents who suffer from one of several debilitating illnesses to use marijuana with a doctor’s permission and possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana for medical purposes from either a state-licensed dispensary or a personally grown supply. The qualifying conditions include cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, glaucoma and other illnesses.

North Dakota’s Republican-led House rejected a bipartisan measure last year to legalize medical marijuana. People suffering chronic pain and parents of critically ill children pleaded with lawmakers to pass it, while state law enforcement and health officials said it would be a threat to public health and safety.

Citizen initiatives allow residents to bypass lawmakers and get proposed state laws and constitutional amendments on voter ballots if they gather enough signatures from supportive voters.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said 25 states have laws allowing medical marijuana. But it is still illegal at the federal level, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved the drug’s medicinal use.