Customers buy products at the Harvest Medical Marijuana Dispensary in San Francisco. (Haven Daley, Associated Press file)

“We’re about 80 percent happy”: North Dakota medical marijuana compromise hammered out

BISMARCK, N.D. — The Legislature on Thursday approved a set of rules to govern the use of medical marijuana in North Dakota, an uncomfortable compromise for many Republican lawmakers in the conservative state who were surprised that voters legalized it.

The Senate got the two-thirds majority vote needed to amend the citizen initiative, after the House did the same earlier this month.

GOP Gov. Doug Burgum said he would sign the legislation that establishes rules for the use of marijuana — including smoking it — as medicine for people who suffer from debilitating illnesses, including terminally ill patients.

“We want to make sure this product is available as the people have wished,” Burgum told reporters.

Fargo financial planner Rilie Ray Morgan headed the initiative campaign and said he and other backers are mostly satisfied with the new rules, but that another citizen initiative is possible if medical marijuana is not available in the state within the next year, as estimated by the state Health Department.

“If that doesn’t happen, there is going to be war,” he said.

Sixty-five percent of voters supported the measure in November, surprising lawmakers in the deeply conservative state and even the measure’s backers, who tried but failed to persuade the Legislature to legalize it two years ago.

The passage of the initiative sent the Health Department scrambling to solve a number of legal issues in connection with the medical marijuana law. The measure’s backers, though, accused regulators and the Legislature of attempting to add unwieldy restrictions, including one that would allow patients to smoke medical marijuana only if a physician finds that no other form of the drug, such as a low-THC extract, would help.

That provision was taken out but a doctor or now a nurse practitioner still must recommend smoking marijuana as medicine for people who suffer from some diseases.

The bipartisan bill also removed provisions that would have allowed growing marijuana as medicine.

“This is a landmark piece of legislation,” GOP Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner told colleagues on the chamber floor. “We have gone where we have never gone before … and I think we have a piece of legislation that is as good as it could possibly be.”

Morgan, who suffers from chronic back pain, said cutting the growing-your-own provision is still not acceptable.

“We’re about 80 percent happy with the way it turned out,” he said.

Five out of every 1,000 North Dakotans are expected to use medical marijuana when it’s available, a threshold needed to fund planned oversight of the program, the state Health Department has said.

The state will spend more than $1 million to oversee the medical marijuana program over the next two years. The program is expected to raise $1.6 million during the 2017-19 budget cycle that begins on July 1. The program is estimated to cost $3.2 million in the following two-year budget cycle, and would be self-supported through fees to patients, approved growers and dispensaries, health officials said.

The AP also reported that Burgum said the state’s new voter-approved medical marijuana law would work better if the federal government would decriminalize the drug. He says cash-only businesses attract a “criminal element.” He said North Dakota’s state-owned bank could issue debit cards to those who use medical marijuana. But he said bank officials and regulators are “terrified” of idea because of marijuana’s illegal federal status.

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