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Robin Weisz

Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, second from left, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said in March he has been working toward a safe implementation of medical marijuana.

Interest is growing in dispensing medical marijuana as the North Dakota Department of Health, Division of Medical Marijuana closes in on finalizing its administrative rules and opening the application process.

The department received more than 100 letters of intent to apply to be either a grower or a dispensary.

"We don't think we're going to get over 100 applications," Director Kenan Bullinger said. "This gave us a feel for how much interest there was in people intending to apply, which helps us plan our future workload.

"We've had potential growers call who thought they could just have an acre or two out on their property, and put a razor wire fence up and get a pit bull for security. It doesn't quite work that way," he said.

At an advisory committee meeting Thursday, Bullinger said the administrative rules for medical marijuana should be finalized within the next week or so.

“We’re going to take the time necessary to get them right," he said.

The committee met to review the proposed administrative rules that will govern North Dakota's future compassion centers, which is another term for the two growers and eight dispensaries allowed in the state.

If there is a high demand for medical marijuana, the department has the authority to increase the number of compassion centers.

"We don’t know what the patient numbers are going to be. Nobody has a clue," Bullinger said "Hopefully, this will take off and a lot of patients will apply and take advantage of this. If the numbers go up fast, we’ll have to increase the growing and manufacturing capacity as well."

Production could be increased by adding a third registered grower or amending the law to allow existing growers to produce additional plants. Under current law, growers have a 1,000 plant limit.

Once the administrative rules are finalized and approved by the governor, the application process will be opened for a period of eight weeks.

“We hope to have blind applications, where all the information as to who submitted it will be pulled off by accounting" Bullinger said. “We don’t want to be accused of providing favoritism to any one particular group.”

A yet-to-be-determined review committee, made up of a cross-section of approximately 12 people, will score the applications, starting with the growers.

"We’ll open up the application process for the dispensaries, but probably not review those applications until we make our selection on the growers," Bullinger said. "So we don’t have that workload at one time."

The location of the dispensaries is  important to provide "ready and convenient access" to medical marijuana in all areas of the state, according to Bullinger.

Six laboratories have expressed interest in becoming the third-party independent testing lab to conduct mandatory testing.

Among the proposed administrative rules is the proper disposal of medical marijuana, due to a patient's death or no longer being registered, by local law enforcement.

"I think the more places you make it available to return something, the more apt you are to get it returned," said committee member Tyler Lannoye, who suggested waste be returned to the dispensary.

“For convenience sake, having the local law enforcement agencies involved is going to provide a closer facility to bring it back to," Bullinger said. "If they have to go back to a dispensary, that could be 75 to 100 miles away.”

Medical marijuana will be tested to ensure it is safe and free of pesticides and contaminants. It will need to be packaged in containers that minimize the appeal to children.

Compassion centers must have 24-hour closed circuit surveillance, with a video retention of 90 days. An alarm system will also be in place, which will summon law enforcement.

Two individuals will conduct inventory at least weekly.

“The law has to be very strict," said District 15 Representative Greg Westlind, who also serves on the advisory committee. "It has to be governed from seed to finished product.”

“Our team has been working diligently to put this program in place,” said State Health Officer Mylynn Tufte, who also serves as committee chair.

"Product won't be available for probably another year," Bullinger said. "We're doing this for the people, the patients and the caregivers. We want a good safe product readily accessible and in the hands of the patients as quick as we can, without making mistakes and jeopardizing their health. It's important to us."