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Patrick Springer, Published September 08 2010

North Dakota Supreme Court rules pharmacy issue won't be on ballot

A flaw in the way petitions were circulated means North Dakota voters will not decide in the November election whether to change a law limiting pharmacies.

The North Dakota Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously upheld a decision to reject petitions bearing the signatures of almost 14,000 voters to place the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot.

If approved by voters, the proposed ballot measure would have allowed chain retailers such as Walmart, Walgreens and Target to open pharmacies in the state.

North Dakota is the only state in the nation to require that pharmacies be majority-owned by pharmacists who are licensed in the state, a law that has withstood multiple legislative and legal challenges.

“This subject’s going to remain alive,” said Tammy Ibach, an organizer of the failed petition drive, noting the issue could resurface in either the 2011 Legislature or 2012 primary or general election.

“We certainly respect the decision that the Supreme Court made,” she said. “It’s said that the people who signed the petitions have to wait many months to have the option of where to shop for their prescriptions.”

Secretary of State Al Jaeger rejected the petitions because they were not circulated with the list of sponsors, as required by the state constitution.

The state Supreme Court agreed with Jaeger and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem that the petitions were incomplete and therefore failed to meet constitutional requirements.

In briefs, Eric M. Thompson, chairman of the sponsoring committee, North Dakotans for Lower Prescription Drug Prices, argued that the petitions were in “substantial compliance” with the law, an argument the justices rejected.

Larry Gauper, a Fargo resident who was one of the ballot measure’s sponsors, said legislators, who rejected the law change in 2009, should reverse course in light of the almost 14,000 petition signatures demonstrating public support for repealing the ownership law.

“The legislators should listen to that mandate,” he said. “They ought to go out and change this law once and forever.”

Jaeger said he feels his office has been vindicated by the court’s decision.

“I’m pleased with the court’s decision,” he said. “It affirmed what we felt all along,” that the petitions were incomplete without the sponsors’ names and addresses.

Ultimately, Jaeger said, voters will decide the issue, either by initiative or referral.

Mike Schwab, executive vice president of the North Dakota Pharmacists Association, said the state’s pharmacy ownership law has proven itself over the years.

“Countless times, the pharmacy model we have in North Dakota has proven effective on multiple levels,” he said, noting it has withstood many legislative and legal challenges.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522