BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota began issuing medical marijuana cards this week to patients and caregivers after nearly two years of work developing and implementing a distribution system for the drug approved by voters in 2016.
Medical marijuana could become available in eastern North Dakota within a few weeks, with dispensaries operating statewide by early fall.
That’s welcome news for people like Sheri Paulson, an eastern North Dakota farmer who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
“It’s definitely a start in the right direction,” Paulson said, though she is not yet one of the patients receiving their state card.
The Health Department has been working on the system since lawmakers crafted a law in early 2017 allowing the use of medical marijuana for 17 medical conditions, along with terminal illnesses. Officials last year selected companies to implement a monitoring system and to perform laboratory testing, registered manufacturing facilities in Bismarck and Fargo, and in late October began accepting applications from potential patients and designated caregivers.
Both patients and caregivers must pay a $50 annual fee and meet certain requirements, including doctor or registered nurse certification for patients and a criminal background check for caregivers.
The Health Department this week issued 70 medical marijuana cards, most of them for patients, said Jason Wahl, director of the agency’s Medical Marijuana Division. No applications had yet been rejected, he said Friday.
“We have moved the program closer to being fully implemented,” Wahl said.
Patients with state cards can’t grow their own medical marijuana or obtain it just anywhere — they must go to a state-approved dispensary.
The state last year named companies to open dispensaries in Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Williston. It expects to begin taking applications later this month for dispensaries in Devils Lake, Dickinson, Jamestown and Minot.
Either the Fargo or Grand Forks dispensary should begin operating sometime next month with medical marijuana produced by the Bismarck manufacturer, according to Wahl. Whether it might be problematic to have only one dispensary handling the initial patient demand “really depends on what happens to patient numbers between now and when that dispensary opens.”
A second dispensary could open later in February, with two more opening by early May, he said. The last four are expected to be open by September. It’s not yet known when the Fargo manufacturer will have product available, but it has begun growing plants, according to Wahl.
The market — not the state — will dictate what the drug costs.
The Health Department has endured some criticism over the amount of time it is taking to make the drug available, though the timeline isn’t unusual when compared to other states with the drug, according to the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. The state estimates that as many as 4,000 North Dakotans will legally be using the drug by summer 2021.
Paulson said she has found parts of the state certification process frustrating and also hasn’t had an easy time getting the necessary doctor approval to use the drug, but she is still staying positive.
“It’s an encouraging sign that there are 70 cards that have been issued — that’s telling me there are 70 doctors who are helping patients,” she said. “Maybe other doctors will hear that and be more inclined.”