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It’s about high time

News | April 17th, 2019

Design by Raul Gomez

After nearly two and a half years since the people of North Dakota voted to pass the Compassionate Care Act into law in the state, medical marijuana is finally available to patients. Only one dispensary is open right now, but seven other cities have been named as future sites of medical marijuana dispensaries, including four which were named last week.

The most recent cities to be added to the list of dispensary sites are Minot, Devils Lake, Jamestown, and Dickinson. They join Grand Forks, Bismarck, and Williston as future homes to medical marijuana dispensary sites. Currently, The Botanist in Fargo is the only dispensary operational in the state, but several more are scheduled to open this year. The Botanist opened March 1.

“We do anticipate another dispensary, possibly two, opening in May at this point, but [we’re] kind of waiting to see how renovation goes,” said Jason Wahl, Director of the Medical Marijuana Division at the North Dakota Department of Health.

“We’d be looking at Grand Forks more than likely being open sometime mid to late May, and the dispensary in Williston either being open at the end of May, possibly beginning of June,” Wahl said. “Bismarck, we would say that one still requires some significant construction and remodeling work. We don’t see that one opening any time before June 1.”

As far as a timeline on the other sites opening, Wahl said that also depends on building readiness.

“I would suspect based on certain information that those, probably the soonest being open would be probably more toward the August range as they need to go through…special use permit use or addition use permit in those cities, so they have to go through that process before they’d even be allowed to start any work on their facility,” Wahl said.

The dispensaries will be welcome to many around the state.

There are currently close to 300 registered medical marijuana patients in North Dakota, but only The Botanist to buy products from and they have had a choppy start.

“They have really had some weather issues that have impacted their opening,” Wahl said. “They were closed [April 11 and 12], and I think they’ve had to close due to weather a couple other days too since they started their operations on March 1.”

Even with the issues with opening, Wahl feels things have started out on the right foot.

“Overall, I think the dispensing of products to qualifying patients has been going very well,” he said. “The number of patients that continues to grow as far as those with a registry identification card, we anticipate that sales would continue to increase at that dispensary.”

The number of patients registering for medical marijuana is growing, but how does someone who feels they could benefit from it begin the process?

“Usually, we say to start the process is a discussion with your healthcare provider,” Wahl said.

There are currently 14 conditions that qualify for medical marijuana treatment. They range from cancer and glaucoma to epilepsy and Alzheimer’s Disease.

“Probably the best source of information that’s available for individuals interested in obtaining a registry identification card to be a registered, qualifying patient is really to review information we have on our Division of Medical Marijuana website and clicking on the patient button,” Wahl said. “There is a lot of information there for potential patients including application instructions.”

Once a potential patient decides to pursue medical marijuana treatment, they need to fill out an application online.

“The patient application process – there is a graphic there to kind of (give) a quick snapshot of how this process does work,” Wahl said. “We do have a video tutorial there to help people step-by-step through the application itself. So, it is an online application process only. Applicants do need to complete an application online as part of that. They provide us with a recent 2x2 photo of themselves as well as a copy of the front of their North Dakota driver’s license as well as identifying their healthcare provider by name and an email address for that healthcare provider.”

Patients who qualify will then be able to purchase medical marijuana from a registered dispensary in a variety of forms. The Botanist carries a range of products for both adults and children, including dried leaves and flowers, topicals, vapes, oils, capsules and tinctures.

The products available in the store can be viewed online. However, only registered patients or caregivers are allowed to access them in person.

“If you were to show up (without being registered), you wouldn’t be allowed anywhere except in the lobby,” Wahl said. “They will not grant you access to any other parts of the building at that time or they would be considered to be in violation of the program law and rules.”

Patients who cannot physically make it to a dispensary can designate a caregiver to purchase and deliver their product to them, but that caregiver must go through the application process and be registered also. People who cannot make it to the dispensary and do not have a caregiver to pick up products for them will eventually have a delivery option available to them.

“Down the road, as things become more operational, dispensaries do have the ability to provide a home-delivery service,” Wahl said. “Right now, that isn’t available through the Fargo dispensary as things getting started in relation to the program, but we do anticipate a home-delivery service being available through certain dispensaries.”

After a visit to the lobby of The Botanist, this writer was able to confirm that access would not be granted to unregistered public, but unable to confirm when or if delivery was in the works from the dispensary. Staff on hand would not comment on the matter and The Botanist’s corporate office could not be reached for comment before this story went to press.

Many people have questioned what the holdup has been in terms of having medical marijuana available. There are several reasons.

One falls at the feet of the state legislature who passed a bill to cease implementation. After the Compassionate Care Act was voted in by the citizens of North Dakota, the 2017 session made changes to the law and finally passed a revised version in April of that year.

“From January until the middle of April of 2017 there was no program to be implemented because there wasn’t anything on the books for the Department of Health to implement,” Wahl said. “Once the law became effective, that was in the middle of April of 2017, that’s really when the program started moving forward in relation to being implemented.”

Moving forward was a process that required certain steps.

“The law that was passed in April did require certain things of the department prior to any applications being received,” Wahl said. “A number of things had to be established and set up, such as administrative rules. The Department of Health needed to go through a request for proposal, process a formal procurement process to obtain a vendor to implement an IT system. That was both for the registration as well as kind of what we call our traceability system – it’s a real inventory tracking system.”

The tracking system literally tracks the marijuana every step of the way. Wahl said they track the seeds, plants, intermediate products, and end products. Even waste products are tracked. The Health Department keeps track of everything from the seed to the patient.

After the law was finally passed and a system was in place to administer the program, the fact remained that, even though marijuana has been legalized medically in North Dakota, the plant is still a Schedule 1 drug illegal to use, sell, or possess federally in the United States. Because of this, there were and are several factors involved and hoops to jump through to make sure everyone involved in the process is protected.

Wahl said the Health Department sought out various sources while working out the details of implementing the program.

“The program…was new to North Dakota and while there are a number of other states with programs and we had a number of conversations with various states and reviewed their policies, laws, and rules – the one thing is, the way the North Dakota law is, there’s not an exact match out there,” Wahl said.

“There’s certain things that are similar, but we also have to take into consideration that we are a larger state geographically with a relatively lower population. So, that impacts certain operations of this program as well, but I would say, overall, in regards to implementing the program, we certainly attempted to implement this program as quickly as possible keeping in mind our first priority in implementation was to ensure the health and safety of the qualifying patients as well as the public.”

This also includes a rigorous process for any company that applied to become grower or dispensary as well as anyone working for them.

“Anyone that works at or is considered to be an agent of a manufacturing facility or a dispensary is required to be registered by us,” Wahl said. “As part of that registration process, they do have to have a criminal history record check performed and anyone with a felony at any time on their record, or a misdemeanor drug conviction within the last 5 years is ineligible to work at a manufacturing facility or dispensary.”

The process is ongoing.

“Their card is good for a year,” Wahl said. “Every other renewal of their card, we will run a criminal history check again. In the application process, whether it was a manufacturing facility or a dispensary, part of what was scored and taken into consideration was training that was to be provided by the employees that work there. So, we follow up and monitor the amount of training that is received by employees at the manufacturing facilities and dispensaries to make sure they have well-trained and qualified people.”

There is no doubt that as more dispensaries open and medical marijuana becomes more commonly used, there will be kinks to work out, but so far, the rollout has gone pretty well. That said, medical marijuana is still in its infancy in North Dakota and, as a state we have a lot of learning and growing to do when it comes to this type of treatment.

“I would say we’re just scratching the surface,” Wahl said.

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