Erin Olander was one of the first patients to receive medical marijuana from a dispensary in Bismarck. She came early Tuesday because she figured there would be a line.
The 34-year-old Hazen woman drove to Bismarck with her sister-in-law for the long-awaited opening of the dispensary at 1207 Memorial Highway -- the first dispensary to open in central North Dakota and one of only four operating in the state nearly three years after voters approved the drug.
About 15 people showed up at the Bismarck dispensary during the first hour it was open. Olander likened the opening to Black Friday shopping, "and you want to be the first one in."
Olander has spinal stenosis and other chronic back problems, as well as arthritis. She's had back issues for 16 years and started taking prescription pain pills about three years ago.
After taking the pills she would become forgetful. She also became addicted to the pills, which she admitted to her doctor.
"I needed to get off them, and I knew that," she said, adding that she takes 27 pills a day and her goal is to stop taking them completely.
She looked to medical marijuana as a safer alternative to the pills.
"It really does help. It's really a medicine; it's not just Cheech and Chong," she said, referring to the comedic duo whose act and movies center around the recreational marijuana culture.
Olander and other patients exited the dispensary with white paper prescription bags containing marijuana products. Olander opted to buy marijuana concentrate, which is used along with a vape pen. She said she gets back spasms that will last for 48 hours, so the concentrate works fast and is effective.
"It's a big relief off our shoulders that we don't have to hide. You don't have to worry, 'Oh my god, do I smell like marijuana?' Now that I have my card I feel a big relief," she said.
Patients must have a card issued by the state Health Department to buy medical marijuana.
The dispensary has a waiting room that is open to the public, according to General Manager Ben Hecht. The area is open to people seeking more information about medical marijuana and the state program.
The waiting room has a glass window where a staff member will take a patient's state-issued ID and medical marijuana card. The patient fills out an intake form, and a private consultation room is available to patients.
The 2,000-square-foot facility contains modern lighting and furniture. Only qualified patients and caregivers are allowed behind a secured door where the sales floor is located.
Hecht said the dispensary sells "everything that's available" under state law, including flowers, tinctures, topical lotion, oil and a variety of distillates. The medical marijuana manufacturing facility in Bismarck is researching transdermal patches, Hecht said, which the dispensary will offer once they become available.
Hecht lives in Bismarck, but the company he works for, Harvest Inc., is based in Tempe, Ariz. The company operates dispensaries in multiple states and has two of the eight medical marijuana dispensary licenses issued in North Dakota.
Hecht said the Bismarck dispensary doesn't look like the usual doctor's office and is far from the "stereotypical head shop,"or a store that sells drug paraphernalia. Though Harvest Inc. is a for-profit business, the company's goal also is to educate patients and the public about medical marijuana.
"The biggest thing is how important for us to have the opportunity to educate and engage the community," he said. "We want people to know what we're doing and why we're doing it, and really just help demystify and debunk a lot of the stigma" involving medical marijuana.
The dispensary is cash-only and has an ATM inside. Taylor Hogue said he's happy he doesn't have to drive to the dispensary in Fargo to obtain medical marijuana, but he said the Bismarck dispensary's prices "were extremely expensive."
Hogue, who's in his late 20s, became paralyzed after a motorcycle accident in 2012. He's been on oxycodone pills since the accident, but he said his doctor suggested Hogue try medical marijuana so he could quit taking the pills.
Hogue said the Fargo dispensary offers discounts to certain patients, including himself. At the Bismarck dispensary he had to pay $200 for a tincture that will last him 30 days. He said he had to take out a cash advance loan on his credit card to afford the medicine.
"I'm just going to really see if it works right now (and) see if it's even worth the $200 a month," he said.
North Dakota voters approved medical marijuana in November 2016. The Health Department has been working on the system since lawmakers first crafted rules for the drug in early 2017. The state expects as many as 4,000 residents will legally be using the drug by summer 2021. That’s based on the experience in Delaware, which North Dakota officials have cited as a model.
Dispensaries have opened in Fargo, Grand Forks and Williston. They also are planned in Dickinson, Minot, Jamestown and Devils Lake. The Jamestown and Devils Lake facilities are expected to be the next to open.
Harvest of Bismarck is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and is closed Sunday. For more information, visit www.harvestinc.com/location/bismarck.
(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)