As ND waits for medical pot, frustrated supporters foresee a voter backlash
FARGO — Supporters of North Dakota's yet-to-be implemented medical marijuana law warned that voters will get a chance to negate restrictions imposed by legislators through a proposal to legalize recreational pot use.
The warning, mixed with multiple expressions of frustration over delays in rolling out the program, came in a hearing Thursday, Dec. 14, to take public testimony on proposed administrative rules for the law, passed in November 2016 by almost 64 percent of voters.
"People are upset, people are mad," said Ralph Reynolds of Fargo. "They feel they have been given something that isn't wanted."
Reynolds was one of several people testifying who said the response to the state's delays and cumbersome restrictions will be to pass recreational marijuana use at the ballot box, and predicted widespread support for that avenue.
"I guarantee it's going to happen in November next year," Reynolds said. He added that he has a legal medical marijuana card issued by California, and thought it was legal to use medical marijuana in North Dakota because it has been legalized, but said he was nonetheless charged with possession.
"This is way better than any pharmaceutical painkiller," Reynolds said, adding that what he regards as North Dakota's official hostility to the law is "really upsetting."
Chad Peterson, a Cass County commissioner, called upon state officials to make funds available to local governments, which must shoulder zoning and law enforcement responsibilities under the medical marijuana law.
"Most of the costs are going to be borne by local government," he said. "That is a reality." Peterson also called for strict monitoring of medical marijuana, noting that the drug remains illegal under federal law.
Sen. David Clemens, R-West Fargo, said lawmakers had to extensively amend the initiated measure to decriminalize medical marijuana use and to make it comply with federal guidelines, so it would not create law enforcement problems.
"There's a lot of work that goes into getting all these rules in place," he said. Clemens said law enforcement officials have said publicly that they believe the widespread availability of medical marijuana — now legal in 30 states and the District of Columbia — has resulted in more pot turning up on the streets.
"I'm not saying pot does not have a benefit for medical use," Clemens said, but called for strict enforcement to prevent abuses.
Michael Olsen of Fargo said he has been battling multiple sclerosis for 29 years, and is eager to take medical marijuana for his pain. He expressed disappointment in not detecting a sense of urgency from North Dakota officials to make it available.
"I take opiates for my MS, and if I could switch tomorrow, I would," Olsen said.
John Shea, whose family runs a nursery and landscaping business in Grand Forks, and is interested in becoming a medical marijuana growing center, said medical marijuana will help curb the opioid epidemic.
"I firmly and strongly believe that medical marijuana will make a difference in many people's lives," he said. He asked officials to lift the restriction that growing centers be limited to no more than 1,000 plants.
Ray Morgan of Fargo, who was one of the leading proponents of the medical marijuana law, scolded state officials for the slow rollout and for imposing needless and costly requirements, including very high fees for businesses that will be designated to grow and dispense medical marijuana.
He urged state officials to allow growers to produce more than 1,000 plants, the limit, which he said will drive up costs so far that medical marijuana will be financially out of reach for many.
"What's going to happen, and you can mark my words on this ... this is going to be an abject failure," Morgan said. "The cost is going to be prohibitive to patients."
In an interview after the hearing, Morgan said it will be difficult for designated growers and dispensaries to recoup high fees imposed by legislators. A two-year license for an authorized growing center will cost $110,000, in addition to a $5,000 application fee. The two-year fee for dispensaries will be $90,000.
Officials estimate the population of qualified North Dakota patients, who must be diagnosed with one or more of 14 qualifying diseases or conditions under the law, ranges from 4,000 to 5,000.
"You just don't have the population base to become cost-effective," Morgan said in the interview.
Jamie Edwards, a LaMoure County farmer who grows industrial hemp, said he is interested in becoming a medical marijuana grower, but complained that the application fee is steep.
"If I'm not chose for that, I'm not sure where it went," he said, referring to the $5,000. He suggested a $500 paperwork fee, with the balance toward $5,000 payable by growers who are chosen.
After the hearing, in an informal question-and-answer session, Jason Wahl, the interim director of the medical marijuana program, said the earliest medical marijuana could be available would be late next year.
That is because of the timeline spelled out in North Dakota's administrative rules process, as well as the time it takes to set up the program. Most states take between 18 and 24 months, and some more than three years, to establish programs, Wahl said.
"That's over two years," Morgan said, referring to the span between voter approval and implementation. That timeline doesn't include the time it will take to implement local zoning approval, he added. "It's ridiculous."
In testimony, Lee Barnett of West Fargo said voters will hold elected officials accountable. Voters knew what they were voting for when they overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana, he said.
"Maybe we didn't know who we were voting for," Barnett added. "Maybe it's time we look at who we vote in and what we get."