- Associated Press - Thursday, August 16, 2018

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s Health Department hopes to have medical marijuana available by the end of the year in at least the state’s two largest cities, though there remain unknowns including how long it will take manufacturing facilities to get up and running.

State voters approved the drug in November 2016. The Health Department has endured some criticism of 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 department this week made available a draft application for medical marijuana dispensaries in Grand Forks and Williston, to give potential applicants a head start. Actual applications for those two cities are likely to be accepted next month, when the agency also expects to select operators for dispensaries in Fargo and Bismarck.

The Fargo and Bismarck sites potentially could be operating by the end of the year, as dispensaries typically take about three months to become operational, according to state Medical Marijuana Division Director Jason Wahl. The state also expects to begin accepting applications from patients and doctors in late October.

“I would anticipate qualifying patients could have cards by the end of this year, and designated caregivers as well,” Wahl said.



However, it isn’t known yet whether manufacturing facilities in Bismarck and Fargo will have product available by then. The state in May gave the initial OK for two state-approved facilities, but Pure Dakota in Bismarck and Grassroots Cannabis in Fargo need to get their facilities ready and get all of the necessary local approvals before they can obtain final state registration.

The Bismarck facility has obtained a building permit from the city, and the Fargo operation expects to submit information to the city next week, according to Wahl.

The state earlier this year selected a Florida-based company to implement a system to monitor the drug program, and a Pennsylvania-based company to perform laboratory testing. The Health Department in January will accept applications for the final four dispensaries in Devils Lake, Dickinson, Jamestown and Minot. The intent is to have all eight dispensaries operating by next July.

The phased-in approach is modeled after other states that have set up medical marijuana programs, in part to reduce pressure on manufacturing facilities at startup, according to Wahl. Based on other states’ experiences, it isn’t likely that the initial dispensaries will be swamped by demand from around the state when they become operational, he said.

“It takes a little time for qualifying patient numbers to see a significant increase,” Wahl said.

In Delaware, which North Dakota officials have cited as a model, registered patients went from 38 to nearly 3,600 in the first four fiscal years, and there was a 231 percent increase between the third and fourth year, according to the state’s Health and Social Services Department.

Patient numbers also have risen steadily in Minnesota since medical marijuana became available there in July 2015. Two years later, about 6,200 patients were enrolled, and there currently are about 10,700, according to data from that state’s Health Department.

“Our patient volume has consistently gone up as we’ve added more conditions,” spokesman Scott Smith said.

North Dakota law allows the use of medical marijuana for 17 medical conditions, along with terminal illnesses.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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