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Growing interest: Officials talk rules, take questions at medical marijuana hearing

There are 50 pages of proposed administrative rules for North Dakota's medical marijuana program, but no one had a question about any of them at a public hearing held in Grand Forks Thursday.

Only one person commented during the well-attended hearing at the Grand Forks County building, and she just wanted to say how excited she was to have medical marijuana in the state.

"As a Christian family, we are very excited to help the chronically ill and we hope they can find relief from their pain with medical marijuana," said Darlene Shea, co-owner of Tim Shea's Nursery & Landscaping in Grand Forks.

Darlene and her husband, Tim Shea, are, like many attendees Thursday, prospective operators of "compassion centers," the term used for both manufacturing centers and dispensaries in the state. Other attendees included ranking members of the Grand Forks Police and Fire Departments and Grand Forks County State's Attorney David Jones.

Most at the hearing had general questions about the program rather than comments on the rules.

Grand Forks was the sixth and final stop for public hearings on the proposed rules around the state, though public comments will be taken online or via the mail until Dec. 26. Those comments will be gathered and submitted to the Legislative Council on Feb. 1, according to program director Jason Wahl. On March 14, the Legislative Rules Committee will vote to approve the rules, which can go into effect on April 1.

That's when people like the Sheas and others interested in becoming manufacturers or dispensary operators can apply. Competition will be fierce. The state law only allows for two manufacturing sites and eight dispensaries statewide, though if needed more can be added in the future. The state will charge manufacturing centers a $110,000 license fee every two years. Dispensaries will pay $90,000.

Most of the administrative rules for the program center on procedures for those compassion centers, and Wahl said many of the comments have been concerns from potential operators on high overhead costs and potential patients worried it may mean high prices for medicine.

Wahl said more than 115 groups submitted a letter of intent saying they intend to apply to operate a compassion center. With a nonrefundable application fee of $5,000, prospective applicants want to know what they're getting themselves into.

Mike McMenamy and Dan Maier sent in a letter of intent to apply for a dispensary in Grand Forks. They wanted to come Thursday to make sure they had a good understanding of the rules surrounding the program before submitting their application.

"We're going to really sit down and do our homework," said McMenamy, who owns McMenamy's Tavern.

The Sheas said as experienced gardeners with the necessary facilities in place, they are well-qualified to be one of the state's manufacturers.

"It's something we'd kind of looked at forever," Darlene Shea said.

But they said they never thought they'd have the opportunity to become a legal grower in North Dakota. New research coming in on medical marijuana has shown how useful it can be for sick people, Darlene Shea said.

Wahl said the application packet for compassion centers is still being completed, but that they hope to have one ready for manufacturing centers by April 1 so the process can move along quickly.

The goal is to have usable marijuana ready for patients by the end of 2018, Wahl said.