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Axel Swanson, right, research director for state of Washington association of counties, speaks at a session on medical marijuana on Monday at the North Dakota Association of Counties annual conference. Seated at right is Tara Brandner of the North Dakota attorney general's office.

With the clock ticking on the implementation of medical marijuana in North Dakota, county officials are examining the potential issues that may arise.

Local government representatives packed a conference room Monday for a session on the impacts of the legalization of medical marijuana on counties, as part of the North Dakota Association of Counties' annual conference in Bismarck.

Participants in the session inquired about employment practices and guidelines in response to the legalization of medical marijuana. Tara Brandner, assistant attorney general, said county governments should be left to determine their hiring practices.

"The position that the state is working towards is zero tolerance," Bradner said of state employees.

This means because marijuana is a federally illegal drug, and because most state entities are federal contractors, employees are not to use drugs in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, she said.

“Do you want to take a zero tolerance (policy)? As a county, as a city, that’s your question," said Bradner, adding they should take into account whether they receive any federal funding.

North Dakota voters passed Measure 5, legalizing medical marijuana, in November 2016. 

The North Dakota Department of Health has drafted administrative rules and is in the process of procuring a system to track medical marijuana growing and sales, according to Bradner. The law allows for two manufacturing facilities and eight dispensaries, which are expected to open sometime next year.

The law comes with stipulations, including that proposed medical marijuana manufacturing facilities must not be located within 1,000 feet of a property line of a public or private school. Applicants must also show proof that they're in compliance with local zoning laws. 

Fees will apply to those interested in growing and dispensing medical marijuana in the state, including a $110,000 registration fee for manufacturing facilities and a $90,000 fee for dispensaries, which will be charged every two years.

Aaron Birst, legal counsel for the NDAC, said so far he's only worked with one county in the state to enact a medical marijuana zoning ordinance: McKenzie County.

"It’s still on the table … but nobody wanted to really get into it until they found out what the Department of Health was doing," Birst said. McKenzie County approved the ordinance in July.

The message of Monday's session to counties was to start preparing for the potential of having medical marijuana manufacturing facilities and dispensaries in their towns.

Axel Swanson, research director for the Washington State Association of Counties, spoke about the legalization of marijuana — medicinally and for recreational purposes — in the state of Washington. Swanson said there are 1,361 licensed producers or processors in the state, and about 516 retail locations.

Swanson said the state has about $120 million in marijuana sales every month, and it collects $27 million in excise taxes every month. However, Swanson said "very little revenue" comes back to the local government, about $30 million.

Voters in Washington approved medical marijuana in 1998, and recreational marijuana in 2012. Swenson said local counties there can also ban marijuana businesses, as determined by an opinion from the state's attorney general.

Birst has received inquires from North Dakota counties on whether they can ban marijuana businesses in their towns: Birst responded that it's an "open question."

"I’m not comfortable, at this point, saying counties have the opportunity to outright ban it," he said, adding that, without a basis for a ban, it's unlikely to hold up in court.

"I think it’s a better perspective to actually start preparing for it and working with it, as opposed to just saying, ‘Never in my county,'" Birst said.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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