BISMARCK-The North Dakota Department of Health is looking to hire staff and write rules on medical marijuana following passage of the state's new law two weeks ago.
The undertaking represents uncharted territory for the department and the medical marijuana division's director, Kenan Bullinger, a department veteran who was appointed to his position in February. North Dakota voters approved an initiated measure six months ago legalizing marijuana use for medical purposes.
North Dakota legislators replaced that law with a new one they wrote during the recent legislative session. Proponents said it includes necessary regulations for the federally illegal product, but still provides adequate patient access.
Gov. Doug Burgum signed Senate Bill 2344 in mid-April, and Bullinger said Tuesday, May 2, they're aiming to have the product available in 12 to 18 months. That timeline will partially depend on the how quickly the growers and dispensaries become operational.
Among the state's priorities are preventing the diversion of marijuana to people who aren't qualified to use it and making sure it's safe for patients, Bullinger said.
"We are doing this for the people of North Dakota. They voted for it," he said. "I'm confident we'll get there."
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said medical marijuana advocates should continue to pressure North Dakota lawmakers and regulators to ensure the program is operational in a timely fashion and reflects voter intent. He cited the example of Maryland, where medical cannabis isn't yet available a few years after its law was passed.
"There's no reason this should take multiple years to roll these programs out," Armentano said.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow for "comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The North Dakota program's budget allows for six full-time employees. Bullinger hopes to start interviewing candidates for two administrative positions next week.
He is also looking at an expedited rulemaking process, which will be followed by soliciting applications for marijuana growers and dispensaries. The law allows for up to two manufacturing facilities and eight dispensaries, but the Health Department could add more if it finds increased access is needed.
Bullinger said the department has already contacted more than a dozen medical marijuana firms, with more interest coming from potential growers.
A fiscal note attached to the medical marijuana bill estimated 1,900 qualified patients would register in the first year, along with 950 designated caregivers.
Bullinger said the process of launching the new program has been a "rewarding challenge."
"You learn something new every day about this business," he said. "We're all very happy with the direction we're going."