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Senate sidesteps medical marijuana ballot measure in passing new bill

BISMARCK-The state Senate gave its approval Wednesday morning to a restructured ballot measure that would allow a medical marijuana program in North Dakota. The bill, with tougher restrictions and oversight than approved by voters in November, is...

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A Minnesota medical marijuana growing facility. File photo

BISMARCK-The state Senate gave its approval Wednesday morning to a restructured ballot measure that would allow a medical marijuana program in North Dakota. The bill, with tougher restrictions and oversight than approved by voters in November, is headed to the North Dakota House.

Supporters of Senate Bill 2344 said the bill ensures the proper licensing, production, dispersal and general oversight of medical marijuana.

SB2344 passed the Senate by a 40-6 vote, exceeding the two-thirds majority needed for amending a ballot measure.

"The plan needs to be one which the Department of Health is able to implement and regulate," bill carrier Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, said.

Among the key changes made to the bill are to allow smoking of medical marijuana, setting fees for manufacturing facilities and dispensaries as well as user identification cards and lowering the age for classification as a minor from 21 to 19.

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The change to allow smoking provides an option for those who might not be able to keep pills or liquid marijuana, such as oils, down.

"This is not something that we looked at lightly," Lee said of SB2344.

Lawmakers and state officials have long said the medical marijuana measure passed in November by voters was poorly written and needed to be cleaned up substantially in order to be workable.

Proponents of the measure have argued SB2344 is an attempt to sidestep what the public wanted by watering down the spirit of the law.

SB2344 primary sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, has long disagreed with those accusations. He said the objective is to provide access to medical marijuana to those who want to pursue it as an option.

"It's a bipartisan effort. We don't have a lot of those but, on this one, we do, because everybody, no matter what your political affiliation, cares about the people of this state," said Wardner, underscoring the need to honor the will of the 64 percent of voters that approved medical marijuana.

"They probably had a friend or a family member who's suffered or are suffering from some chronic condition and they need relief, and they are sincere," Wardner said.

SB2344 sets the annual fee for a user ID card at $200. Certification fees for manufacturing facilities would cost $80,000, and, for dispensaries, it would be $60,000. Renewal for both would be at the same cost every two years.

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Users would be capped at 2.5 ounces of leaves and flowered plant product every 30 days and possession would be capped at 3 ounces. Liquids would be capped at 10 grams.

The health department would also be able to conduct in-person interviews at a person's home with 24 hours' notice and make inspections of manufacturing facilities and dispensaries without notice.

Sen. Merrill Piepkorn, D-Fargo, said the bill did sidestep the public and should be reworked in order to better meet the intent of the voters. He referred to the fee provisions as well as what he called an effort at making the option inaccessible to the majority of the public.

"It's not the state's responsibility to make it as expensive as possible for a person who needs medical marijuana to be able to afford it," Piepkorn said. "This is going to be way out of reach for the average person."

Piepkorn said at an estimated price of about $200 to $400 per ounce for 2.5 ounces per month of medical marijuana comes out to several thousand dollars annually for those who might not be able to afford that.

Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, made no bones about his opposition to medical marijuana. He also questioned the purpose of the user ID cards.

"It's a go smoke dope card," Larsen said.

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