BISMARCK - The North Dakota Department of Health will begin accepting applications for medical marijuana dispensary operators next week, the agency said Monday, July 2.

The staggered application period for dispensaries will begin in the Fargo and Bismarck regions on July 10, with Grand Forks and Williston regions to follow in September. The remaining four dispensary regions in Dickinson, Minot, Jamestown and Devils Lake are expected to open for applications in January 2019, the Health Department said in a news release.

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The agency hopes to have all eight dispensaries operational by June 30, 2019, with four selected this year.

Jason Wahl, the department's medical marijuana director, said they decided to stagger the application dates after looking into medical marijuana program rollouts in other states.

He said a lot of it has to do with the availability of marijuana products

Wahl said the product could still be available later this year, but they haven't identified a "definite date." He noted the two growers - Grassroots Cannabis in Fargo and Pure Dakota LLC in Bismarck - selected in May are still being registered.

"They're still finalizing their plans and drawings. Those need to be submitted, receive approval from local government and then their construction phases need to be completed," Wahl said. "All of those do impact the timeline of when products would be available."

He said his department visits with the growers at least on a weekly basis to finalize the registration process.

Also this week, Wahl said the division has hired a fourth employee. Jordan Schatz, who has worked for the state auditor's office for seven years, will be in charge of reviewing and working with the growers and the dispensaries to make sure they are meeting requirements and efficiencies.

The department has also finalized a contract with Keystone State Lab, who currently does testing for the Pennsylvania program, to conduct testing on the marijuana grown in North Dakota. Wahl said they will set up a lab in the state.

The department is expected to open online applications for patients and caregivers near the end of October, the news release said.

The program was approved by North Dakota voters in November of 2016 and has faced some criticism for the long delays. However, the Legislature didn't approve rules, which they changed from the original measure passed by voters, until the spring of 2017.

Meanwhile, supporters of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in the state say they have enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot this November.