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Burgum plans to sign ‘landmark’ medical marijuana bill after it clears Senate

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks to the media after the Senate passed a medical marijuana bill Thursday, April 13. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum plans to sign a rewrite of the state’s medical marijuana law after senators passed what one lawmaker called a “landmark piece of legislation” Thursday, April 13.

The Senate concurred with changes the House made to Senate Bill 2344 and passed it in a 38-9 vote, surpassing the two-thirds majority needed to repeal or amend a recent initiated measure. The move came about five months after voters passed the measure legalizing medical marijuana, but lawmakers said that law was unworkable and needed changes.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said the bill makes medical marijuana accessible to those who need it and includes necessary regulations and safeguards for a product that remains illegal under federal law.

“I think we have a piece of legislation that is as good as it can possibly be,” he said.

In remarks to the press at the Capitol, Burgum said he plans to sign the bill once he and his staff have reviewed it. He said the Legislature was right to rework the law, arguing the original measure didn’t decriminalize marijuana.

“Without additional legislation, this would have been extremely problematic,” Burgum said.

The bill, introduced by legislative leadership from both parties, repeals the original Compassionate Care Act and includes 41 pages of language governing the use of marijuana for debilitating medical conditions, such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and others.

It differs significantly from the bill’s introduction, and a medical marijuana supporter said the pressure they put on lawmakers this session pushed them to draft a bill that was closer to the initiated measure that almost 64 percent of voters passed in November. But Wardner said he felt more pressure to make medical marijuana available to those seeking relief from pain.

Rilie Ray Morgan, who chaired the Measure 5 sponsoring committee, said supporters still have some reservations about the bill, but “in order for this to get into patients’ hands in a timely fashion, we’re not going to oppose it at this point in time.”

Still, Morgan pointed to previous statements from the North Dakota Department of Health indicating medical marijuana could be available in about a year.

“If that doesn’t happen, there is going to be hell to be paid,” he said. “If it’s not available in a year, we will take people to court then. No ifs ands or buts about that.”

Wardner said the Health Department is committed to make medical marijuana available as soon as possible. Burgum said the department has indicated the product would be available for purchase in 12 to 18 months, noting the agency still has to go through a rulemaking process.

“I don’t see anybody dragging their feet on this issue,” Wardner said. “It’s a top priority for them.”

Lawmakers credited staff from the Health Department, Office of the Attorney General and Legislative Council for their efforts on the complex legislation, with Human Services Committee Chairwoman Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, comparing the work it required to welfare reform in the 1990s.

“I don’t believe we’ve had a piece of legislation in recent sessions that’s had more hours of work put into it,” said Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford. “When you go back to your districts, you will have constituents who will be excited to be able to access this for their own use or their loved one’s use, and that’s what this bill is all about.”

The bill requires qualifying patients to pay an annual $50 fee, down from the $200 the Senate had proposed. The House also removed a requirement that physicians who authorize patients to smoke medical marijuana attest that it’s the only form that would be effective.

Along with smoking marijuana, the bill allows for tinctures, capsules, transdermal patches, topicals and “cannabinoid concentrates.” Those younger than 19 years old would not be able to smoke marijuana for medical purposes.

The bill allows the Health Department to register up to two manufacturing facilities and eight dispensaries, but it may allow more if it finds additional facilities are necessary to increase access.

The bill doesn’t include a provision that was in the original measure that allowed patients who live more than 40 miles away from the nearest facility to cultivate up to eight marijuana plants.

Arvy Smith, deputy state health officer, said the program will require a $1.56 million total appropriation with $723,000 coming from the general fund in the 2017-19 funding cycle, along with six full-time equivalent positions.

Despite the worked required to pass the bill, Lee predicted lawmakers will need to re-examine the law again in two years.

“This is just going to be a work in progress,” she said. “This is as good as we can get today.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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